Rugby World Cup 2015: Henry Slade dreams of instant hit after finding his voice with England

If an experimental red-rose midfield is to prosper against France, the youngster from Exeter is likely to have an awful lot to do with it

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The Independent Online

England’s “other” new centre – the one who does not go by the name of Sam Burgess – appeared in public forum and was immediately asked about… yes, you guessed it. “He’s a big lad,” Henry Slade said of Slammin’ Sam, alongside whom he will make his red-rose debut against France at Twickenham on Saturday night, “and he brings with him the experience of being a  winner. He has a wealth of that, even though he’s relatively new to the union side of things.”

Which is rather the point, not that Slade was much interested in dwelling on the rugby league refugee’s chronic lack of mileage in the 15-man code. If an experimental England midfield is to prosper against Les Bleus, whose tradition in this department is richer than anyone’s, the youngster from Exeter is likely to have an awful lot to do with it. He is, after all, a natural playmaker with a cultured left boot and a union brain every bit as highly developed. He may find  himself in need of both.

“They’re dangerous,” he acknowledged when quizzed on the French threat – the kind of threat capable of putting paid to any rookie midfielder’s chances of making a World Cup cut. “They can run it from all over the shop, they look to force the offloads… you have to be alive against them, shut down their space and not give them the time they need to make their decisions.”

Slade is not an outside centre by breeding – “When I was named at No 13 on the teamsheet for an Exeter warm-up game last season, I thought it was a typo,” he recalled – but while he is better suited to life among the inside backs, he may yet become a top performer in his current slot through force of habit. It is an exposed position, demanding physical strength and resilience as well as sound instincts and spatial awareness, but he has squared up to some formidable opponents since his relocation, including Manu Tuilagi, and lived to tell the tale. As a great actor might say: the role is temporary, but class is permanent.

Those who felt that the 22-year-old from Plymouth should have been given an international run during the Six Nations, or even before Christmas against the touring Samoans, will not have been wholly convinced by the England head coach Stuart Lancaster’s argument that a key decision-maker needed far more time to master the England system than Slade had been granted. But the player himself believes that he benefited from the “slowly slowly” approach.

“Every time I came into camp during the autumn, and again during the Six Nations, I got to know the other players a little better and felt more comfortable,” he said. “It was a similar thing when I first went to Exeter from school: I was a bit reserved initially, but emerged from my shell as I grew more confident. I’ve had to do that a bit quicker with England, but I now feel  comfortable telling people what I want done.

“How will I feel now that something I’ve imagined so many times finally happens? I’m not quite sure, exactly. There will be nerves, but nerves are good as long as you’re able to control them. There will be excitement too, of course: I’ve been thinking about winning a first cap for years and years. Yet I also have to remember that there’s a World Cup spot up for grabs. The goalposts have been moving all season and my aim now is to make it into the final squad.”

He is a strong-minded sort, for sure. As a diabetic, he understands better than anyone that iron discipline is a crucial part of a top-level sportsman’s make-up, saying: “The condition doesn’t make you run any slower or lift less weight in the gym, but you do have to test yourself before and after each training session, before and after you eat. It can be 10 times a day sometimes. The challenge is regulating it, keeping on top of it. You have to balance it out.”

So if it comes to nailing a 50-metre kick to win tomorrow’s game, Slade will back himself. “I relish that pressure,” he said. “If that opportunity is there, you can’t afford  to hesitate.