England verdict on Henry Slade, their most picked player of 2021
Henry Slade showcased his immense value to England in last Saturday’s Autumn Nations Series win over the Springboks in London. The official match statistics only credited the 28-year-old with just three passes throughout the entire game but each one of those was telling in its involvement in all three of the tries his team scored in their dramatic 27-26 win.
It started on seven minutes with his long right to left pass in the 22 for Manu Tuilagi to score in the corner. His execution carried on in the 17th minute when stepped in at first receiver to take a pass for Ben Youngs from a scrum near the opposition ten-metre line and he passed long from left to right to send Freddie Steward breaking clear in the move that eventually led to Steward scoring some phases later.
Then in the 65th minute, with England having just fallen 17-18 behind, Slade was again the first receiver off a set-piece, taking a pass from sub scrum-half Raffi Quirke on his own ten-metre line following a lineout on halfway. His advance attracted the attention of two Springboks defenders and as he was tackled by one of them, he offloaded in the tackle to his right to put Joe Marchant speeding through the hole that led to the try for the supporting Quirke.
It all amounted to a spectacular reward for Slade for his passing game in an England match where his other stats were seven tackles, two carries and a single kick 24 months on from the World Cup final versus the Springboks where he was held in reserve, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi the starting midfield chosen by Eddie Jones on that occasion.
First capped in August 2015 under Stuart Lancaster, the current value of Slade to England is reflected in how he has finished 2021 as their most picked player, the Exeter centre starting in nine of their ten matches since last February, a selection consistency that left him one ahead of Jonny May, Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Ben Youngs who all started on eight occasions in a calendar year where Jones capped a total of 59 players.
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“Interesting player,” reckoned Jones when asked for his thoughts on Slade’s evolution into a must-pick starter who has been chosen as a starting midfielder in 14 of England’s 15 post-lockdown matches since October 2020, injury ruling him out of the one match he missed versus Ireland last March. “I can always remember leading up to the World Cup in 2015, he played in a couple of the practice games and was outstanding and then didn’t feature in the World Cup.
“In his first bit of time with us, he was sort of in and out but he has really cemented his spot at 13 now. He has grown in terms of his influence on the team and this (past) week he was vice-captain, which is a great reward for the way his game is developing and the way he is maturing as a player.”
Rookie out-half Marcus Smith, who stepped out of the line to allow Slade to be the first receiver from a set-piece in two of England’s tries against the Springboks, had nothing but admiration for the courage of his teammate to execute those passes amid the new attacking approach under Martin Gleeson, one of the three new assistants that came into the set-up for the Autumn Nations Series.
“Martin has been amazing for us as an attacking unit for England and he is full of ideas,” said Smith. “He always does it with a smile on his face. It is brilliant to work with someone like that and I have learned a huge amount from him and I will keep in contact with him over the next few weeks.
“It’s massively courageous of Henry to throw that ball to Freddie and then release our winger in the open because no other team has done that before. We worked hard during the week and to be able to put it on show in front of all our friends and family was special. It’s a day this group will never forget for sure.”
A debate that will now be deliberated this winter is whether Slade could potentially run the No12 channel long-term and keep skipper Owen Farrell out of the side. Inside centre Farrell only featured in one of England’s three November matches and he faces a race to be fit for the start of the 2022 Six Nations following an ankle operation.
Tuilagi was the starting No12 versus the Springboks but he strained his hamstring when diving in at the corner for his score, leaving Slade moving in one position in the backline for the 73 remaining minutes of the match.
“They adapted really well,” reckoned Jones. “Henry had to go in one slot, Marchant has to move in one slot but Marchant has got a lot of experience playing 13 for his club and Max Malins is an outstanding winger. I thought they adapted very well in the circumstances.”
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