Slade forces England to think again

Date published: August 17 2015

England's midfield has never been crystal clear under Stuart Lancaster, so it's appropriate that a new name should crop up at the last minute to possibly change the shape of England's Rugby World Cup squad.

Not Sam Burgess, this time anyway, even though he performed well on his own debut at Twickenham. Instead the man in question is Henry Slade.

The Exeter Chiefs playmaker has hardly come out of nowhere given he was with England during the Six Nations and dazzled for the U20s, but a succession of excellent performances for his club and now on his Test debut have thrust him into the limelight just over a month from the start of the Rugby World Cup.

Slade's versatility made him an attractive option anyway for England when you consider how capable he is at 10, 12 and 13. Backed up though by a composed debut against France, his case now feels even stronger. He was certainly a candidate for Man of the Match.

What the 22-year-old does so well is that he is rarely rattled, holds his own physically and has the ability to produce the right pass or kick on an impressively consistent basis. There was one big mistake though – a mid-air tackle on Morgan Parra that susprisingly didn't end with a yellow card.

"It was unintentional and things like that happen sometimes," Slade admitted. "I didn't mean to do it and I apologised to him afterwards."

Yet it didn't affect Slade mentally. He continued to fizz out passes, releasing the dangerous Jonny May and Anthony Watson in the process, and his new combination with Sam Burgess also had the perfect balance of bruising carries and playmaking vision.

The longer he played the more his confidence naturally grew, peaking with an audacious flick pass out the back in the build-up to May's try but starting with his quick hands which gave Anthony Watson the time and space to skin Brice Dulin down the outside.

Saturday had been interpreted as a shootout between Burgess and Slade for the same centre spot in England's squad, something downplayed by Lancaster afterwards, but leaving one of the two out now would be tricky.

Not only did the Burgess-Slade pairing have a natural feel about it but Burgess fits a similar mould as Brad Barritt, while Slade offers a similar threat in many ways to Jonathan Joseph.

His background as a fly-half means Slade is always hungry for the ball in hand, making him the kind of effective second playmaker that Lancaster has always wanted yet never quite enjoyed consistently with Billy Twelvetrees.

This was only a World Cup warm-up match and against a weak French backline, yet even then Slade did enough to show he belongs at international level and that England should select him in the final group of 31.

"The first few minutes I was feeling my way into the game, and then all of a sudden it was half-time in a blink, which shows I was enjoying myself," he added afterwards to a large group of reporters.

Not as much as those in the crowd enjoyed watching a talented prospect adapt so smoothly to international rugby. At a time when Lancaster is attempting to wittle down his squad, Slade might make him think again.

by Ben Coles