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Steward ‘buzzing’ after surprise Prem debut

It’s not the strangest of pre-match rituals you’ll ever hear, but certainly one of the less common.

While fellow members of the Leicester squad listened to music, read or played cards aboard the team bus to Sale on Friday afternoon, 18-year-old Tigers Academy member Freddie Steward was getting his homework done to avoid being sent to the Principal’s office on Monday morning.

“It was not what was I expecting at all, but it was just an awesome opportunity … I’m still buzzing.”

After being added to the squad as a 'travelling reserve' for the Tigers away game in Round 16 of this season’s Gallagher Premiership at the AJ Bell Stadium, Steward was allowed to make the journey after the youngster made a promise to his teachers at Norwich School that he would get his schoolwork done in time for Monday’s classes.

“School only let me off for the day if I promised to get my work done, so me and Jonny [Law] did it at the hotel before coming to the stadium,” Steward told LeicesterTigers.com in the away changing room post-match.

“I just thought I’d watch the boys and then get on the bus home.”

Not listed to play or expecting anything other than the chance to watch the senior side go through their routine on an away day before warming up alongside the likes of internationals Tom Youngs, Sione Kalamafoni, Kyle Eastmond and Jonah Holmes, Steward was just enjoying soaking it all in.

Then, with less than 10 minutes remaining before the 8pm kick-off against the Sharks, Tigers head coach Geordan Murphy sent Steward’s heart racing when he told him he was being added to the bench after George Worth hobbled off with a knee injury and was ruled out of the match.

“It was a massive surprise,” said Steward.

“I came as a travelling reserve, not expecting anything and when George [Worth] got a knock Geordie [Murphy] just gave me a nod and said ‘you’re on the bench’.

“It was not what was I expecting at all, but it was just an awesome opportunity … I’m still buzzing.”

Steward has spent the past two seasons starring in the fullback position for the Tigers Academy and played a major role in back-to-back U18 League title wins for the Leicester youngsters.

So, fittingly, it seems only right that the club’s most decorated No.15 would be the man to hand him his Premiership debut only weeks after making his first senior appearance in the Premiership Rugby Cup away game against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens.

With his heart rate now at an all-time high and head spinning, what inspirational quote did Murphy pass on to Steward?

“Firstly, he just said, relax,” Steward said with a smile.

“Then he just told me to play my game and not to worry about the crowd or occasion … just do what you would do so well for the Academy.”

Which the youngster did.

It may have only been four minutes, but Steward didn’t look out of place when used off the bench as a replacement for fellow Tigers Academy graduate Jordan Olowofela on the wing and in his only touch managed to prevent a Sharks try with an impressive clean up at the back on a Sale kick in attack before touching the ball down in the Leicester in-goal.

“You could just tell, even from the sideline, it was another level up from what I’ve experienced before.”

The scoreline may not have been in favour of Steward and his now Tigers team-mates including internationals Youngs and Holmes, but the student summed up his first Prem experience in glowing terms.

“It was awesome,” he said through a grin from ear to ear.

“You could just tell, even from the sideline, it was another level up from what I’ve experienced before.”

Unfortunately, the Norwich born Steward didn’t have family present to share the moment with after playing it cool and insisting his mother not make the trip earlier in the day.

“Actually, I told my Mum not to travel down because I definitely won’t get on,” said Steward.

“They would have wanted to be here for it, but I’m sure they’ll be really happy that I just got the chance.”

Earlier that day, Steward was announced as one of five Tigers Academy players to be included in this season’s England U18s squad for their upcoming fixtures this month and will take on France U18s at Cheshunt RFC on March 24.

However, after getting a taste of the top flight, young Freddie has even more motivation to continue his rise up the Tigers ranks and work even harder to ensure four minutes turns in to much, much more.

“I absolutely want more … I’m even hungrier now,” Steward said, sitting on a changing room bench also supporting Kalamafoni, Guy Thompson and Will Spencer.

“It just comes down to hard work, training and as long as I do that, the rest will take care of itself.”

Assuming, of course, he has finished his homework.