A relieved Henry Slade believes that England’s rejigged backline finally gives it the balance it needs to bring the best out of him after forming a new partnership with Ben Te’o for Saturday’s Test against South Africa.
Slade is renowned for his gifted hands and gliding feet, having become one of the key driving forces behind Exeter Chiefs’ rise through the ranks of English rugby.
But at international level, he admits that he has not been able to find his feet yet after being moved around, picked and dropped, and played in roles that negate his best abilities.
With Te’o installed in the No.12 shirt despite playing just 28 minutes of rugby since May due to injury, Slade is retained in the outside centre berth that he filled on the South Africa tour in the summer – albeit with a very different role given Owen Farrell’s move to fly-half.
No longer does Slade have to try and play the battering-ram role that he had to occupy when Farrell played outside George Ford or Danny Cipriani. The 25-year-old is now the second playmaker, tasked with getting the ball out to Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly who inflicted serious damage in the summer.
“With Ben and Manu coming back to fitness it gives us a lot of options in the midfield,” Slade said. “Faz [Farrell] going to 10 doesn’t change too much as we’ll still play the way we try, and I think it gives us a really good balance for us in midfield.
“Before I think in the summer when we were on tour, I was probably the bloke doing the main carrying off first phase and that’s not really my game.
“I think we’ve got some big lads in midfield to do that and play to our strengths because that’s Benny’s and Manu’s strength. My game is more about being that second distributor and getting the ball to our outside backs who are really dangerous. I think we’ve got a good spread and mix of strengths across the back line.
“I enjoyed carrying but obviously I’m not quite as big as those other lads and not as effective. I didn’t mind it but I do enjoy myself more being that second playmaker out of the back, bouncing across, trying to pick up weaker shoulders and that kind of thing, rather than being the one doing the brunt of the carrying and hit stuff up.”
Slade’s selection is not a gamble in any sense given his form over the last year, but Te’o’s inclusion very much is, no matter what Jones says. If he struggles to find his rhythm at Test level with just one club appearance under his belt this season, his replacement will either see George Ford return to resume the 10-12 partnership with Farrell that hasn’t worked of late, or the return of Manu Tuilagi after four years of injury hell.
But Slade is very much backing Te’o to hit the ground running, due to his experience both in rugby union and his former life in the 13-man game.
“He’s an experienced guy and he’s played it before,” added Slade. “He’s played for the Lions, he’s played a lot of rugby, and I think the older you get the easier it is to come back in and make it seamless. He’s been training pretty well out here as well so I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes.”
Jones, very much a long-term fan of Te’o, agreed. “I think probably Sladey is more of a 13 than a 12. That doesn’t discount him from playing at 12 and that could be another combination we have.
“We had a reasonable session on Tuesday and he got through that one. It was the equivalent of 65 per cent of a game and he handled that well.
“I think you find with the more experienced players – and particularly players who have played a lot of high-level games as he has given his rugby league background – they tend to know how to prepare better to get back into games. They know what their body needs.
“Rather than coaches telling them what they need, they are telling the coaches what they need and Ben is in that category.”
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