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George Furbank reflects on Northampton comeback and England debut as Premiership rugby returns

George Furbank is comparing two rugby games, 28 weeks apart that could hardly have been more different.

Northampton Saints’ 34-21 defeat to Wasps on Sunday might have been the Premiership game of the weekend but it was still an eerie, solemn affair – worlds apart from Furbank’s loud, fiery England debut against France in February.

‘It was two opposites!’ says the Saints 23-year-old in an exclusive interview with Sportsmail.

George Furbank attempts to break through the Wasps defence during 34-21 defeat

‘At least this time I could hear my team-mates though!

‘It was a relief, and awesome to be back, but it was kind of weird rocking up to the stadium with no fans there providing an atmosphere when you’re warming up.

‘Once you’re into the game it’s ok – it’s like another game and you don’t notice too much difference.

‘Usually you block out the crowd noise anyway, but now when there is a break in play you think “wow, it’s really quiet”.

The 23-year-old full back learned harsh lessons on his England debut against France

The 23-year-old full back learned harsh lessons on his England debut against France

‘It’s always going to be weird playing behind closed doors, especially at Franklin’s Gardens where you’re used to our fans singing the whole game.

‘It was a frustrating result. We didn’t put our game on Wasps who had four or five chances and took most of them.’ That was one unhappy parallel with the Stade de France Test a lifetime ago.

During the Six Nations Furbank was a shock call-up for the opener – England’s first since game the World Cup final which he had watched with mates over a beer.

With the benefit of hindsight the full-back is mature enough to admit he struggled.

‘I got put in there when I probably wasn’t expecting to,’ reflects Furbank.

‘Looking back I would have done a few things differently, but I was a new cap and hadn’t experienced it before. You never know how you will react.

‘You’ve got so many different things to deal with – like the pressure with so many people watching.

Furbank bounced back during England's stormy Six Nations victory over Scotland

Furbank bounced back during England’s stormy Six Nations victory over Scotland

‘It was more the build-up to the game. Your phone is going crazy and there are a lot of distractions I didn’t deal with as well as I could have. It’s something I’ve never had to deal with before.

‘I like to be focused, have my mind on the game with minimal distractions, so going into that it probably wasn’t the case.

‘When I definitely didn’t have the game I wanted Eddie Jones spoke to me, and gave me confidence going into the Scotland game.’ Furbank tried to work out what went wrong and sat down with RFU psychologist Andrea Furst who helped him calm his mind before a stormy second cap in Scotland.

The Northampton Saints man benefitted from working with RFU psychologist Andrea Furst

The Northampton Saints man benefitted from working with RFU psychologist Andrea Furst

‘We spoke about breathing and meditation to clear the mind and take away any thoughts or distractions that are going on in your head,’ he explains.

‘For Scotland I felt more myself, more confident. I had learned a lesson and had a better game because of it – although the match wasn’t the best in the storm!’ It was perhaps understandable Furbank took a while to get going. Unlike most of his peers, and the majority of the England senior side, he never represented his country at top junior level.

In fact his school, Kimbolton, did not play rugby at all – so Furbank’s formative years were spent at Huntingdon Rugby Club, where he followed in the footsteps of father Tim and great-uncle Dick.

At 14 he was selected as one of the best young talents of the surrounding clubs by the England pathway programme, but aside from a run-out for the U16 ‘C’ team that was it.

However, after moving to Bedford School he was snapped up by Northampton Saints joining at the same time as house-mate and fellow England hopeful Alex Mitchell.

‘It was frustrating,’ Furbank says of a lack of youth experience.

‘You see your mates playing England U18s and U20s and think “does this mean something?” but I tried to keep my head down and keep working hoping I would get an opportunity at Saints to show my worth.

‘You do get the feeling like it isn’t going to happen, but I was never really a stand-out talent at the age-group levels, so I just worked hard at my basics and tried to be as good as I could at those.

‘The opportunity doesn’t go until they say it’s gone.’ Furbank was also a strong cricketer at school, and the sport kept him sane during lockdown.

With team-mates and house-mates Alex Ribbans and Mitchell there were hours of backyard matches.

‘I’m not the best in the garden – I’m more of a free-flowing player than a Test match, soft-hands batsman!’ laughs Furbank who does a passable impression of England opener Rory Burns.

Furbank attempts his best Rory Burns impression while playing cricket in the garden

Furbank attempts his best Rory Burns impression while playing cricket in the garden

‘I played Minor Counties for Huntingdonshire as a teenager and they sent me to some winter nets at Leicestershire.

‘I enjoyed cricket more than rugby when I was really young and still miss playing it.

‘I started out as a top-order batsman then moved to the middle-order and bowled left-arm spin. I would say my bowling is up there for garden cricket – I can tweak a few out!

‘Around 14 I realised I was a bit better at rugby than cricket, so the focus moved.’ Between those garden games and at-home training Furbank also finished the fourth year of his Open University Geography & Environmental Sciences degree while rugby was away, with a project comparing soil moisture variations in conservation and normal agriculture.

But at last he is back on familiar turf with the Saints, who can quickly bounce back from their Wasps loss with London Irish, Bath and Harlequins coming in the space of nine days from this Saturday.

Furbank says Saints' 'minimum aim' after the restart is to challenge in the top four

Furbank says Saints’ ‘minimum aim’ after the restart is to challenge in the top four

‘It’s a brutal schedule, but you do what you have to do to get the season done,’ says Furbank.

‘Hopefully there will be a decent amount of rotation and boys won’t have to double up too much. No one is allowed to play every game anyway, no one could.

‘The mental side will be brutal too – even if you’re on the bench you’ll need to be in the right mindset.

‘The good thing is that if you get two or three quick wins you’re straight back in the mix for the top four. That is the minimum aim – then we go for the title.’ And Furbank hopes when England come calling again clear thinking will see him through.

‘The whole thing was a brand new experience, so I’ll know fully what to expect now – that gives me confidence,’ he concludes.

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