Henry Slade: My broken leg was the darkest hour of my career yet, but now I’m back, my aim is to break into the England team.
In 2010, Exeter Chiefs’ out-half-cum-centre Henry Slade was playing for Ivybridge RFC, a club then playing in the Tribute Western Counties West division; the seventh tier of English rugby. They are now in the fifth tier having achieved successive promotions in 2014 and 2015, and if that Devon-based club have made huge strides, then Slade has made colossal ones.
Just five years after featuring for Ivybridge, this precocious talent was picking up the Premiership Young Player of the Year award, making his England debut and travelling to the World Cup. Whirlwind.
Nothing could seemingly stop the progressively upward career trajectory of both him and his club, but of December in what must have been the year of his life, 2015, Slade broke his leg against Wasps in Coventry. Disaster. Agony. Darkness.
“The lowest point in my career was breaking my leg,” Slade reveals. “It was a dark place to be in the first few weeks after that and the whole of rehab, and mentally at first it was quite a big deal. It was pretty tough, but the physio’s here are proper class.
“Thankfully now I’m completely fine, and I’ve actually just stopped strapping it. The other day I went out for a training session and just forgot, and it felt fine, and you know it’s good then.”
Having recovered from his toughest moment in the sport so far and worked hard to make it back for the end of last season, Slade’s time for England under Eddie Jones to date reads a total of 36 minutes across three games, and each as a replacement. Challenge. Now 24 years of age, it has well and truly been received.
“Yes and no,” Slade says when I ask if it has been frustrating under Jones. “I’m in the same position now as I probably was when [Stuart] Lancaster was in as well. I’m just sort of on the edge of the squad.
“Sometimes sneaking in on the bench, sometimes not. This tour will be good for me I think, if I can play a bit more and hopefully put my best foot forward.”
The tour Slade speaks of is England’s two-Test series in Argentina this summer, with the Exeter back named as part of Jones’ 31-man squad.
With the likes of Owen Farrell and Ben Te’o away as Lions in New Zealand, this tour is a chance for Slade to make a mark. A real opportunity under Jones. And he knows it.
“Yeah I’m really excited. Obviously I’ve been in and around the squad for a while and not had much game time, so hopefully this tour can be a chance for me to get a bit more game time and show what I can do. I’m just looking forward to getting out there.
“Being sort of in and around the England squad, I want to push my way into that team and be a regular in that side.
“That’s a realistic target for me over the next year or two, or however long it takes, because I’m there or thereabouts, and that’s what I’m working towards.”
In the immediate present, Exeter face newly-crowned European champions and last year’s Premiership conquers Saracens in a league semi-final on Saturday at Sandy Park, as the self-proclaimed ‘wolf pack’ go after the much hyped ‘double double.’
The fixture is a repeat of last year’s final at Twickenham, as Exeter came within one step of what would have been the most perfect cherry to a quite astounding cake. But more on that later.
“Yeah it’s a massive challenge,” Slade says with caution but a heavy hint of eagerness. “Any team in this league is tough but when it gets down to semi-finals the intensity increases and I think we can learn from last year having been through it already, and having faced Saracens in the final.
“We take a lot of learnings from them and I think we’re in a better situation than when we faced them in that final.
“We definitely take confidence from our performance up there this season (a 13-13 draw), but I don’t know whether home advantage is as much as people say.
“We’ve gone away to loads of places and got results in recent times and Sarries have done the same. I wouldn’t say that’s a massive factor, it’s just obviously nice to be playing at home in front of our own fans and the home comforts of match-day, that sort of thing.”
If that final loss was disappointing, it was also a moment for the whole squad and rugby world to take stock of what exactly Exeter had achieved.
This is a club who 12 years ago were sharing their stadium with a local motorbike team. A club who had never experienced top flight rugby until 2010. Yet there they were in the final of the Premiership, and also having made the last eight of Europe’s elite earlier in the campaign.
This season though is different, and seismically so. Each year Exeter grow, learn and gain crucial experience. And with that, the squad thinks differently, feels differently and, consequently, aims differently.
To match last year they had to work even harder. If you stand still in sport, you go backwards, and Slade candidly admits harsh words had to be spoken in the Chiefs dressing room for them to wake up.
“There’s been a change in mindset. When we lost in the final last year, obviously we were massively disappointed, anyone is to lose a final, but we were sort of just happy that we’d had a really good season.
“I think we turned up in pre-season a bit content with how we’d done last year and maybe we’d forgot about the things that got us there.
“That’s why you saw us have a slow start to the year, and it took us to get absolutely pumped by Clermont at home, which was one of the most embarrassing occasions I’ve experienced, for us to sit down, look each other in the eyes and talk to each other, and say how are we going to get to where we want to be?
“From then on we’ve just worked ridiculously hard, in training and matches, and we’ve gone on this run now of how many games is it? 15 wins or something ridiculous.
“And it’s just all come from getting a kick up the arse from Clermont and us reflecting and deciding we shouldn’t be content with coming second, we should be angered by coming second, and make that drive us to be champions this year. That’s what we’ve done.”
You know a run of form is good when you can’t remember how many wins you’re on. It’s 15 league games undefeated with 13 wins and two draws, but you get the picture.
As previously mentioned, quite like his club, Slade’s is a career with explosive beginnings. But how did it actually all happen for him? How does a man jump from the seventh tier to the World Cup in five years?
“I just got into the academy at Exeter and Rob [Baxter] and Ali [Hepher] and the coaches here, they didn’t push us on too early. Us young boys like myself, Jack [Nowell], Luke [Cowan-Dickie], Sam [Hill], they didn’t push us.
“He [Baxter] gave us a year or two out on loan down in the Championship. I was at Plymouth with a couple of the boys, and a few were down with the [Cornish] Pirates. So we had a bit of time just to get used to men’s rugby.
“Then they gave us our shot and I’ve sort of never really looked back from there. For a season and a half I got more game time coming off the bench and a few starts.
“Then the year after that, we had a bit of a centre crisis injury-wise in pre-season, and we had basically no centres for our last warm-up game before the Premiership season started.
“And I remember, the team gets emailed to us, and I remember looking at the email and it said, Slade at 13, and I was like: ‘I’ve never played 13 in my life’.
“I came in the next morning and said to Ali, ‘are you sure I’m 13?’, and he said: ‘yeah, yeah definitely. You’ll be alright’.
“No warning, I just saw it on the team sheet and thought, ‘S**t, I’ve been dropped straight in at the deep end’.
“So I tried it and it went pretty well against Worchester (pre-season), and then I started there and I ended up playing pretty much the whole season at 13.
“That was my breakthrough year and the time I won the Young Player of the Year and it was a big year for me. I ended up getting into the World Cup squad from there, which was a tough summer but it was an awesome experience. Obviously we didn’t do that well but it was great for me as a young player to be involved in that.
“But then I obviously broke my leg, had a hard rehab to get back, got back a few games before the play-offs. We didn’t quite make it, but now we’re here.”
An unforeseen set of circumstances, a twist of luck to get in and then sink or swim basically, and swim he did from outside-centre.
A teammate to have come through at the same time as Slade at almost every level is Jack Nowell, a man now a firm fixture on the wing with England and upcoming Lions tourist.
If things had gone differently for Slade, he too could be on that plane to New Zealand, and I ask if there is a sense frustration there.
He is open enough in his answer to acknowledge that such thoughts have, of course, crossed his mind, but is also pragmatic enough to wrestle with such thoughts and move forward.
“I do think sometimes that if maybe I hadn’t broken my leg I might have been involved a bit more internationally. That injury came at a bad time, but there’s probably never a good time to get one anyway.
“Yeah you can look at it and see Jack [Nowell] now and think like that, but there’s nothing I can do about it so I’ve just got to get my head down now and do my best.”
His emergence has, in a way, sort of mirrored Exeter’s own. Tipped by all to go straight back down in their first Premiership year, Exeter are now developing into European regulars and Premiership challengers.
From Championship wanderers to a bona fide Premiership force. And though he hasn’t been there for all of it, Slade has developed alongside most of it.
“It’s an awesome experience. I mean, I was in the academy for two years before I signed my first contract and now I’m into my sixth contract year.
“So I’ve been seven or eight years around the place, and to see it grow and see us go from where we were to now is incredible.
“One of the most memorable was when I wasn’t actually [professionally] contracted at the time, but it was in our first season in the premiership when everyone said: ‘you are going straight back down’, and we ended up finishing eighth, outdoing a lot of teams.
“From there I think we’ve never really gone and tried to bite too much off at a time, we’ve just gradually done it.
“And that’s a credit to the coaches and the way they’ve done things and sort of run this whole place. You see us gradually, incrementally getting better all the time.
“Eighth, to sixth, to fifth, then we won the LV Cup, then we just missed out on the playoffs, then we got the playoffs and we’re in them again this year.
“We’re getting better and better and hopefully we keep that going. The only way to get better from last year is to win the thing and we’re going to try.”
One man who has been there for all of Exeter’s journey is their coach Rob Baxter. Devon-born, Chiefs player for 14 years, captain for 10, forwards coach after his retirement and now head coach since 2009. An extraordinary career utterly and unequivocally devoted to the Chiefs. Slade describes him as Exeter’s ‘rock’.
“What I was saying about us not trying to bite off too big a bit at once, taking it gradually, that’s down to Rob and his coaches.
“It’s just the way he’s always got his feet on the ground, he never gets too carried away with a big win. Obviously he’ll show he’s happy with the boys, but I think regardless of a big win or big loss, he’s very level headed and I think for a team to have that is really important.
“If you’ve got a coach who’s losing his mind at you one second and then bigging you up the next, the side can be all over the shop, but because we’ve got a rock that’s there in Rob who’s in charge of us, it just settles the boys right down.
“Domestically, I want to win honours with Exeter. We’ve got a big opportunity this season to win the league and that would be absolutely awesome.
“To do it with your best mates who you hang around with all the time. To win something like that with these boys would be amazing, and if not this year then we’ll keep striving for it until we win it.”
And how could you possibly right them off? Saracens may be a truly stunning side at the moment, but there really is a sense of divine intervention with this Chiefs group.
It may not be this season, but their hunger for the top prize is growing. A hunger epitomised by Henry Slade.