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Henry Slade expressed disappointment in not being selected for the World Cup, feeling that he was at the peak of his performance beforehand.
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Henry Slade expressed disappointment in not being selected for the World Cup, feeling that he was at the peak of his performance beforehand.

Henry Slade is sitting in reception at Sandy Park wearing a Christmas jumper with a fire-breathing dinosaur on the front. The Exeter’s squad’s festive meal is about to start and the mood is suitably convivial. The Chiefs have had a clutch of extraordinary last-gasp wins in recent weeks, all of them wrapped up by their talismanic centre. Devon’s local superhero can wear whatever seasonal cape he fancies.

The triumph during midwinter is more satisfying due to the overwhelming disappointment he faced in August. Despite being a consistent midfield player for England throughout the year, the graceful Slade was suddenly removed from the World Cup team right before the competition. Even now, he has not fully accepted the decision. “I haven’t moved on yet. It’s one of those things that you never truly get over. To only play for 10 minutes against Wales and then be dropped the next day was frustrating. I’ve worked tirelessly my entire career and I felt at my best leading up to it. Not being selected was devastating and extremely disheartening.”

Henry Slade played only 10 minutes when England withered to a 20-9 defeat to Wales before the World Cup.

It speaks volumes about the perseverance and skill of the 30-year-old that he has made such a strong comeback. In the previous month, despite being behind by nine points with only four minutes remaining, he secured a 25-24 victory for the Chiefs over Gloucester with a powerful penalty kick from 45 meters as time expired. “I’ve never had a chance to kick for a win before this year, so that one was pretty satisfying.”

Two weeks ago, he remained calm and successfully made an angled conversion, securing a win over Toulon by a narrow margin of 19-18. He described the atmosphere as “silent and cool.” Last week, he scored a crucial try through an interception, leading to another exciting comeback win against Munster. This further emphasized the importance of staying in the game and not giving up.

What does he receive from his fellow players? After every victory, the director of rugby for Exeter, Rob Baxter, creates a compilation of highlights for his team. Slade, who has been with the club for 13 seasons, is featured so often that it has become a tradition for the rest of the team to playfully boo him. “I believe it was Luke Cowan-Dickie who started it. It’s a running joke that has lasted for years. I like to think it’s because they’re tired of seeing me so frequently.”

Henry Slade celebrates scoring his sides fourth try during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby at Sandy Park

His thousands of fans in the south-west would beg to differ. Not since the languid batting of David Gower has an Englishman made team sport look more graceful than does the left-footed Slade. His recurring problem has been the reluctance of certain coaches to embrace a more ambitious gameplan that would complement his array of talents. “Sometimes there’s a frustration but there’s also an understanding Test rugby is quite different and very high pressure. To not get picked is massively gutting but ultimately it’s about what the coaches are looking for.”

Slade has played with a variety of different midfield partners since he first started playing internationally in 2015. Some of these partners include Sam Burgess, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell, Piers Francis, Ollie Lawrence, Alex Lozowski, Joe Marchant, and Ben Te’o. However, he didn’t have many opportunities to play with Manu Tuilagi, with whom he shared a strong connection. Slade believes that if Manu had not been injured, they would have played together more frequently. Slade recognizes that both Manu and Ollie offer different strengths than him, but he believes that they work well together on the field. He explains that in a successful team, you need a player who can get the ball out to the edges and another who can make plays and break through the defense. Slade felt that he and Manu had a good balance in their playing styles.

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Unfortunately, the situation is once again uncertain. With Marchant transferring to Stade Français and Farrell not being a part of the Six Nations, there are multiple potential candidates for the number 13 position. These include Lawrence, Daly, Northampton’s Freeman, and Harlequins’ Joseph.

Slade has been in contact with the national head coach, Steve Borthwick, but as of yet nothing is guaranteed. “We have spoken and it’s been very positive. But obviously you don’t know about selection until it happens. What I’ve been telling myself is to attack it in the same way I did before I’d even played for England. Which is focusing on what I can control and playing well for Exeter rather than looking too far ahead.”

Henry Slade during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears at Sandy Park

Additionally, there is the issue of the Rugby Football Union’s 25 recently implemented centralized contracts. Some individuals have reportedly been offered these contracts, but I personally have not received any offers. Furthermore, my contract with Exeter will come to an end this summer. Many former Chiefs players are embracing their new lives overseas, with Jack Nowell’s children even completing their homework in French. However, ideally, Slade would like to remain with his current team.

“I would consider it a great incentive to remain in England if I am involved with the national team. I have been a part of this team for my entire career and I am content here. Unless I have a reason to leave, I have no plans to go elsewhere. Ultimately, it all comes down to the salary they offer me.”

Another important aspect is the pleasure factor. “There are many young men full of energy and it’s contagious.” He is currently benefiting from Exeter’s positive revival.

The Chiefs’ upcoming game against Leicester on Saturday is expected to draw a record-breaking crowd of 15,000. This will be another challenge for the young team, but Slade, who has been a professional athlete with diabetes for over a decade, has become adept at managing temporary fluctuations in his blood sugar levels. In the past, he would have to do 10-12 fingerprick tests per day, but now he uses a Dexcom G7 sensor, which has greatly improved his experience. According to Slade, the sensor is the size of a 2p coin and constantly monitors his blood sugar levels, making things much easier for him. He can’t imagine how he managed before using it.

Having two daughters, one aged three and the other three months, has made fatherhood a truly amazing experience for him. With that and his upcoming fancy-dress lunch, all that remains for a perfect Slade Christmas is the chance to increase his 56 Test caps in the coming year.

“I am always eager to represent England on the field. The way things ended in the summer was disappointing. I am determined to make a comeback and contribute as much as I can. However, I understand that selection is not something I can control. If my performance earns me another chance, that would be incredible. If not, I will accept it as fate. But I will continue to give my best effort.”

Source: theguardian.com