Ahead of England's summer tour to South Africa, Ali Stokes analyses the striking performance of Exeter Chiefs outside centre Henry Slade.
With Jonathan Joseph ruled out of England's summer tour to South Africa with a foot injury, England's coaching staff face a selection dilemma at outside centre this June. The coaches will have to choose between the blunt force trauma of Ben Te'o, a master key to fit all roles in Elliot Daly or the silky smooth operations of Henry Slade. With the need for England to get back on track after their worst Six Campaign in half a century, getting this particular selection right is crucial for the Red Rose.
Only one of our three contenders played at outside-centre this weekend, with Ben Te'o finished with club rugby for the season and Elliot Daly out on the wing for Wasps, Slade alone had the chance to impress ahead of the final domestic game of the season.
Before we begin our breakdown of Slade's emphatic performance during Exeter's 36-5 victory at Sandy Park yesterday, we must address why his particular skillset embodies the role Eddie Jones want's from his outside centre.
Jones has made no secret of his desire for a thirteen that can take the ball to the line and offload out of contact, Te'o and Manu Tuilagi were seemingly Jones' favourites for the role when he first arrived in his role in 2016. However, with the former suffering from a lack of experience in this position/code and the latter struggling to string more than three games together at a time, Slade may well have put himself in pole position this summer.
While in years gone by Slade could have been considered a lightweight playmaker and not a true strike threat, he has since gone some way to eradicating such concerns. Physically, the 25-year-old has developed significantly over the last two years, managing to make meters well after taking contact against even the most staunch Premiership defenders.
Below we see Slade managed to bump off a Samoan ball of muscle in the shape of Newcastle wing Sinoti Sinoti, who barely manages to bother Slade with a fully committed tackle. Slade bumps off the immensely powerful back and goes on to churn up an extra five meters he ought not to have been permitted.
This was no stand alone incident on Saturday, Slade often took the ball to the game line and held his own against far larger, heavier Falcons forwards, doing enough to ride the tackle and get the ball away. This offloading ability was a key feature of Slade's performance on the weekend.
Below we see Slade show off a combination of a well timed change in running angle, fend and offload to set England number eight Sam Simmonds 15 meters up the pitch and beyond Falcons defensive line.
As eluded to earlier, Jones is desperate for a centre that can hold his own and offload to runners on his shoulder, something Slade executed time and time again against Falcons.
In addition to his ability to threaten on the game line, Slade's ever present distributing skills are just another string to his bow. We saw him at his best in the eighth minute on Saturday, sending former England Saxons lock Mitch Lees through a gap in the Falcons defence, resulting in a 30-meter gain up the middle of the pitch by the time Simmonds is brought down.
Slade has four options, with Lees (4) and Sam Simmonds (8) offering the flat options, Sam Hill (12) sitting in behind and the more difficult option of a wide pass to Luke Cowan-Dickie (2) to the far left.
Given the wide game Exeter like to play in open field, the pace and dynamism of Hill, Simmonds and Cowan-Dickie make the 6ft5" 122kg frame of Lees the least likely to receive the ball, something Falcons blindside Mark Wilson is aware of.
Wilson shoots out the line in anticipation of a ball out the back to Hill or the long pass to Cowan-Dickie, openinng up a welcoming looking gap for Lees.
Slade picks the perfect option, with Lees demonstrating his surprising pace to make the break and get the ball away to Simmonds, who yet again runs the supporting line.
Credit must go to Lees for picking an intelligent line and not searching for contact as many Premiership forwards are guilty of, but Slade's identification, flat pass and sumptuous timing is what makes the break.
The cherry on top of Slade's performance over the weekend was his trademark, silky smooth handling skills. Below we see a poor pass from Cowan-Dickie gathered off Slade's toes and salvaged to make ground against two Falcons defenders. So often, this type of error can result in a ball rolling into touch, or simply seeing a winger smashed off the park after scrambling around for the bouncing ball. Instead, Slade's recovery allows Cowan-Dickie's error to go unpunished by the defence.
Ludicrous ball control from the Plymouth-born centre.
Tying it all together
Finally, we see Slade tie it all together in one move. The 25-year-old picks a difficult ball out of the air, having been carried by the notorious Sandy Park wind. Slade then puts on the footwork, makes ground in the tackle and offloads to Turner once again, who makes meters in behind the Falcons defensive line.
In addition to some excellent running lines, both as a genuine carrier and a dummy runner, Slade arguably had one of his best performances in a Chiefs jersey to help Exeter qualify for a third consecutive Premiership final.
I myself have been a regular critique of Slade's inconsistancy at Test level, but he must now carry this form into the Premiership final this weekend and beyond to the summer tour of South Africa. If Slade can eradicate some of his errors in an England jersey, he has all the attibutes to become the best centre in England.
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