Refreshed Saints star Furbank ready to help fill Big shoes at 10
Leinster, Exeter, Bath, Harlequins - not exactly easy opposition.
But those were the teams that George Furbank started at 10 against for Saints last season.
And while he didn’t always swim successfully after being thrown in at the deep end, there is no doubt that the waves he faced will have stood him in good stead ahead of this season.
It will be important that he is able to take to playing at fly-half like a duck to water this time round because with Dan Biggar set to be away for long periods again, Saints need depth at 10.
James Grayson will be in pole position to cover for Biggar, who played a big part in the recent British & Irish Lions tour and who still has plenty of Wales commitments to contend with.
But Furbank offers another option that the coaches could utilise in the coming weeks and months.
And the 24-year-old, who predominantly plays at full-back, is now fully prepared for what lies ahead.
“With Biggs being away at the start of the season, there’s an opportunity there,” said Furbank, who faces competition at 15 from the likes of Tommy Freeman and Ahsee Tuala.
“Grays is probably our first choice at the moment but being able to step into that 10 role is going to be crucial for the team.
“I want to help the team going forward.
“I’m hoping I can take that experience I got moving into the season.
“In previous times there probably wasn’t too much expected of me at 10 and I probably had that attacking mindset of throwing it around.
“But I’ve realised now there’s scenarios where you need to control the game and doing that at 10 is going to be important.”
Furbank really came to the fore at Saints following the arrival of boss Chris Boyd in the summer of 2018.
He won the trust of the coaches and eventually earned a place in the England squad, with national team chief Eddie Jones stating publicly that he saw Furbank as a future 10.
But Covid-19 came along and Furbank’s form, like that of many of his team-mates, dipped.
It was a challenge that he met head on as he looked to turn things around following a tough 2020 for Saints.
“I think it brought us closer together as a group,” he said.
“It’s the real test of a team and we went through that rough patch and we should have been challenging for a top-four spot. We would have been had it not been for a couple of poor performances towards the end of the season.
“It shows the character of the team.”
And following a summer in which he was finally able to get away from the rigours of professional rugby, Furbank is feeling physically and mentally ready for what’s to come.
“We got a decent amount of time off so I’m feeling refreshed and ready to go again,” he said.
“My girlfriend lives in Amsterdam so I spent a couple of weeks out there and then went to Croatia for a little bit as well so I did a bit of travelling, which was nice.
“It’s been a bit more normal back at the club since we’ve been back.
“We still wear masks in the gym and we’re just waiting on double vaccinations to go up a bit and then hopefully things will be fully back to normal again.
“Everyone needed a break after what was pretty much a season and a half, and it’s been nice.
“To go week on week on week for over a year is a tough mental challenge.
“It’s tough to keep building yourself up so it was much about having a mental rest as physical.
“I found it difficult to start with, coming back after Covid, it was a challenge having not been training with the group.
“We came back to empty stadiums and there were a few things to come back to which were strange, but I kind of got used to it again and got back to where I wanted to be.”
Furbank is one of a group of Saints stars who are in their mid-20s, with much expected of them as they look to fulfil their potential.
And he said: “We’ve got a nice blend and the core group is probably the young guys now.
“With Biggs (Biggar) and Courts (Courtney Lawes) being away at the start of the season, we’ve got Sue (Alex Waller), Mikey (Haywood) and Woody (Tom Wood) leading but the core group is the younger guys so we’ve spoken about it being time for us to take more ownership on our shoulders and step up a bit more.”
Furbank watched on as Harlequins claimed the Gallagher Premiership title last season, finishing fourth before beating Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs on their way to lifting the trophy.
“They were underdogs going into the semis and the final,” he said.
“We don’t want to go in as underdogs but I don’t think teams will expect us to be pushing for the Premiership title but our aim is to get to that top four and to win the title is our goal.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge and excited about the season starting.”
Furbank won’t have to compete for a place with Harry Mallinder at Saints this season as his fellow Academy graduate is going to be plying his trade in Japan for the next two years.
“It will be a good challenge for him,” Furbank said.
“We’re all going to miss him at the club because he was a good lad to have around.
“He was very unlucky with his injuries but he’s a class player and he’ll do well in the Japanese league.”
But talented back Freeman is still very much at Saints, with Furbank continually impressed by what his young team-mate has to offer.
“He’s been class,” Furbank said.
“He’s taken his opportunities, he’s a big guy, he’s quick and he’s an elusive runner.
“It’s an exciting back three to be part of.
“It’s weird not being the young full-back but the more competition you get, the more challenges you get.
“Hopefully we can push ourselves to be better players.”
It all starts with a pre-season game against Bedford Blues at Goldington Road on Friday night as Saints finally end the wait to return to action.
Furbank, who has so far won four England caps, said: “In the forefront of my mind is getting stuck into these pre-season games and then the season ahead.
“It will be class to be back out there on Friday.
“Bedford’s a fun place to play, it should be a good game and I’m sure we’ll all be blowing.”
Everything is being geared towards the Premiership opener against Gloucester on Saturday, September 18.
That should be an extremely special day at Franklin’s Gardens, which will hope to welcome a full house of fans for the first time in more than 18 months.
And Furbank said: “I can’t wait!
“It’s going to feel ridiculous.
“It might even feel better than the first time I experienced it.
“Having played now without any crowds and then going back to full capacity will be a great experience.”