Freddie Burns has arrived at Bath as an experienced 10 who has made big improvements in terms of his professionalism during his time at Leicester. We saw at the end of last season that the Tigers supporters had warmed to Burns, so that by the end of his time at Welford Road it was clear he had become accepted as one of them because of the character he showed.
It is a good feeling to end a stint at a club of Leicester’s standing being appreciated, and having that warmth from the crowd – even when it isn’t your decision to leave. It was George Ford’s return to Leicester that resulted in Burns making the journey back to Bath, which is his home town. However, I’m sure that if he returns to Leicester with Bath he will get a good reception – even if he was involved in a battle for the fly-half shirt with Owen Williams for most of his time at Tigers.
There was not enough consistency in fly-half selection at Leicester over that period, and, as I’ve said many times, if your 9-10 partnership is not consistent and settled then results are not likely to go your way.
There is no question that in 2012 Burns was the best fly-half in England at times, with an 80 per cent goal-kicking success rate for Gloucester, while also making breaks and linking well. He was good that season, and maybe as good as Nicky Evans, the Harlequins and former New Zealand fly-half who I consider to be a similar player.
If Freddie can do for Bath what Evans did for Harlequins before retiring this summer, by being as consistent in his reading of the game, as well as being a game-changer with little breaks and accurate tactical kicking, then he will be a great asset.
In the past we’ve heard Burns talk about his abilities, and he has a bit of a swagger like a lot of attacking fly-halves do. However, he will have to back that up by showing that he doesn’t mind it when he gets hit hard – and that he keeps coming back into the firing line.
Burns will also have to be tenacious to win the 10 shirt in the first place, because it will be a good contest between him and Rhys Priestland. Although at his best Burns probably just edges it, whoever becomes the dominant 10 it will be a bonus for Bath because, unlike Ford, neither is likely to be on international duty.
Both Burns, 27, and Priestland, 30, can control a game tactically by pinning opponents back with their kicking, and both have good hand-eye coordination. In other respects, Burns is more likely to take it to the cliff-edge in attack, while Priestland has the advantage of knowing the Bath system better having been at the club longer.
Defensively both of them make their tackles without ever being in danger of knocking Jonny Wilkinson or Owen Farrell off the top of the fly-half defence charts.
However, the home-town billing could make a difference to Burns. Freddie will like the fact that he is playing in his home city because home is home, and there’s nothing quite like it.
Certainly, it was great for me, and I’m sure it will be a great feeling having his family close.
There may also be a bit of him that wants to prove Bath wrong because he was in their Academy, and they let him go. Burns will also hope to make Eddie Jones sit up and take notice, and at his best he could do that – but he will have to up the ante if the England coach is going to start thinking of him in the same breath as George Ford and Owen Farrell.
Burns’ goal-kicking should put him in credit because it can be match-winning, and when you look back at Ford’s time at Bath he missed too many of the kicks that counted. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a high percentage success if you miss the pressure kicks.
What Ford has is an ability to ‘feel’ the game, and sense space, almost as if he has super-sensory antenna, and while Freddie is similar he probably sees things a bit later than Ford. Burns can look quick on the pick up from a show-and-go, but neither he nor Priestland have the pace to make you think that if they get in behind you they’re gone.
In the modern game you have the occasional fly-half with genuine flair like Beauden Barrett, and before him Dan Carter – who had everything when he was in his prime – but there is also lots of textbook coaching out there which means fewer maverick 10s.
Burns has a style which is more attacking than most Premiership fly-halves, and is reminiscent of Evans. What was priceless about Evans was that he played consistently well despite having an ordinary Quins pack in front of him for much of his time at the club.
There is no reason for anyone – including Burns – to expect a lot of this Bath pack, or the side as a whole, based on the last two seasons. There have been no massive signings over the summer, and there is nothing to suggest that there will be huge improvements, other than that Kiwi coaches Todd Blackadder and Tabai Matson will have one more season of experience in the Premiership.
Ultimately, Burns’ performances will be influenced by whether he gets good quick ball from his forwards. If he does, he will thrive, and if he gets slow ball then his kicking and tactical choices have to be very accurate.
If Burns carries on as he left Leicester then he will do well – and if he can help Bath to rediscover the flair that got them to the Premiership final in 2015, that will be something to shout about. However, a glimpse at the opening fixtures tells you it won’t be easy.
Tigers away, Saracens at home, and Northampton Saints away is a tough start – and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Bath could lose those three and be in a difficult place before they meet Newcastle at the Rec.
An alternative scenario is that Burns starts well and steers a course past those early obstacles to take Bath into Premiership title contention. If that happens he will soon win a place in the hearts of the fans from his home town.