Rugby Union

Ireland vs England: Henry Slade’s coming of age ends Eddie Jones’ pursuit for a second playmaker

You can never be absolutely certain a player has what it takes to make it to the top the first time you see them but every so often you can be pretty sure.

A little over five years ago, 20-year-old Henry Slade replaced Gareth Steenson at fly-half 10 minutes into Exeter’s European Champions Cup pool game against the might of defending champions at the time Toulon, Jonny Wilkinson et al.

Seventy minutes later, despite Exeter slipping to a five-point defeat, nobody present that day was left in any doubt Slade would one day be a high-class international three quarter.

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Eighteen months later Slade impressed in a World Cup warm-up game against France when partnered in England’s midfield with Sam Burgess but he went on to play a bit-part role in the tournament before a badly broken leg in late 2015 set back his progress significantly.

Under Eddie Jones, and now firmly established as an outside centre at Chiefs, there was initially an impression the Australian did not especially fancy Slade, preferring the more obviously athletic Jonathan Joseph or more powerful Ben Te’o in the No13 shirt.


Ireland vs England: Player ratings





1/30 Ireland: 15-Robbie Henshaw – 5

2/30 14-Keith Earls – 5

3/30 13-Garry Ringrose – 6

4/30 12-Bundee Aki – 5

5/30 11-Jacob Stockdale – 5

6/30 10-Jonathan Sexton – 5

7/30 9-Conor Murray – 5

8/30 1-Cian Healy – 6

9/30 2-Rory Best – 4

10/30 3-Tadhg Furlong – 5

11/30 4-Devin Toner – 5

12/30 5-James Ryan – 6

13/30 6-Peter O’Mahony – 5

14/30 7-Josh van der Flier – 6

15/30 8-CJ Stander – 5

16/30 England: 15-Elliot Daly – 9

17/30 14-Jack Nowell – 8

18/30 13-Henry Slade – 9

19/30 12-Manu Tuilagi – 9

20/30 11-Jonny May – 9

21/30 10-Owen Farrell – 8

22/30 9-Ben Youngs – 8

23/30 1-Mako Vunipola – 10

24/30 2-Jamie George – 8

25/30 3-Kyle Sinckler – 7

26/30 4-Maro Itoje – 7

27/30 5-George Kruis – 7

28/30 6-Mark Wilson – 8

29/30 7-Tom Curry – 8

30/30 8-Billy Vunipola – 8

1/30 Ireland: 15-Robbie Henshaw – 5

2/30 14-Keith Earls – 5

3/30 13-Garry Ringrose – 6

4/30 12-Bundee Aki – 5

5/30 11-Jacob Stockdale – 5

6/30 10-Jonathan Sexton – 5

7/30 9-Conor Murray – 5

8/30 1-Cian Healy – 6

9/30 2-Rory Best – 4

10/30 3-Tadhg Furlong – 5

11/30 4-Devin Toner – 5

12/30 5-James Ryan – 6

13/30 6-Peter O’Mahony – 5

14/30 7-Josh van der Flier – 6

15/30 8-CJ Stander – 5

16/30 England: 15-Elliot Daly – 9

17/30 14-Jack Nowell – 8

18/30 13-Henry Slade – 9

19/30 12-Manu Tuilagi – 9

20/30 11-Jonny May – 9

21/30 10-Owen Farrell – 8

22/30 9-Ben Youngs – 8

23/30 1-Mako Vunipola – 10

24/30 2-Jamie George – 8

25/30 3-Kyle Sinckler – 7

26/30 4-Maro Itoje – 7

27/30 5-George Kruis – 7

28/30 6-Mark Wilson – 8

29/30 7-Tom Curry – 8

30/30 8-Billy Vunipola – 8

Gradually, partly down to injury to others, Slade has convinced Jones of his qualities. He made six starts under Jones in 2017 and a further seven last year as slowly but surely he has begun to find his feet at Test level. On Saturday night at the Aviva Stadium, Slade finally came of age.

A less overtly forthright character than many international playmakers and a relatively sensitive soul for a professional rugby player, the Plymouth born youngster, who is also a diabetic, has needed careful nurturing to get the best from him. Jones appears to have worked out what makes him tick.

“Every game Sladey is getting a little bit better,” said Jones. “He’s a guy that maybe at first he didn’t think he was good enough for England and now he’s thinking about how good he can be.

“You build players mentally by picking them because then they know you love them and we’ve done that with him. He’s played seven of our last eight Tests at outside centre so he knows I love him and that helps.”

On Saturday, paired alongside a fit and firing Manu Tuilagi in the centre and winning his 18th cap, Slade combined magnificently with fly-half Owen Farrell as England stumbled upon the midfield combination which, fitness permitting, will surely now see them through to the World Cup. They are a potentially potent trio with Slade bringing footballing wit and surprising physical presence.

Two tries, the first demonstrating his slick passing and exceptional pace when he fed Jonny May before chasing down his kick, and the second his sublime handling ability when he intercepted, juggled and touched down Johnny Sexton’s pass, could hardly tell the full story of Slade’s influence on the game.

Defensively sound, he carried hard into Ireland’s defence while his kicking from hand complemented Farrell’s perfectly and his distribution allowed the likes of Tuilagi, May and Jack Nowell – his Chiefs friend and colleague who also shone against Toulon in 2013 – free reign to roam.

It was, in many ways, the complete centre’s performance.

His dual with opposite man Garry Ringrose – another young centre with a very bright future – was of the highest class and the way he brought runners on around him will have delighted those who firmly believe there is more than one way to crack an international defence.

Standing 6ft 3in tall and weighing a tad over 15 stone, Slade is hardly a slip of a lad but he relies more on finesse than brawn and looks for space first, contact second. As a playmaker, he can add an extra dimension to England’s game and with Tuilagi apparently returning to the sort of form and fitness that made him a world-class centre before a horrendous injury run, England possess more than enough power in midfield without the need for another juggernaut.

Te’o would have played if fit while who knows how Slade’s progress would have unfolded if Joseph had also been available over the past 12 months?

George Ford’s form has faltered and Farrell is now unequivocally the man to wear England’s No 10 shirt in Japan. It has left Jones searching for another playmaker in England’s midfield. Increasingly, it appears Slade is the perfect foil. 

It seems, more than five years after he first thought he was international class, we might have been right about Henry Slade all along. 

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