By Mike Sinclair
Henry Slade astounded everyone by racing back in less than five months after breaking his leg and suffering serious ankle ligament damage.
But, 21 months later, the England midfield contender has admitted that it took him far longer than he expected to fully regain his confidence and form.
Only now has Slade finally shaken off the inhibitions emanating from a serious injury to show the quality and class which first catapulted him into former boss Stuart Lancaster’s England squad before injury struck on December 15 against Wasps ruling him out of the 2016 Six Nations under new coach Eddie Jones.
He rushed back before the end of the season and made the Premiership final, which Exeter lost to Saracens, and England’s summer tour to Australia but accepts: “It’s taken a lot longer than I thought to get over the leg injury but now I think I’ve now put it fully behind me.”
Although he played a big part in Exeter’s Premiership success – including the 60-yard touch-finder which set up the semi-final victory over Saracens and was described by beaten boss Mark McCall as “one of the great kicks of all time” – Slade was not fully firing on all cylinders.
He has been this season as the Chiefs bid to retain their title but recognised: “It was frustrating me how long it was taking me to get over that. It helps when the team is going so well and to be part of that is really good.”
Exeter head coach Ali Hepher was alongside Slade every step of the way back and he expounded: “Sladey’s been playing very well all season and he’s got a good bit of fight about him.
“He’s driven, incredibly driven. It’s not all out there for everyone to see but deep down there’s a highly-motivated lad and he fights for everything in training and in games.
“The pace he’s taking the ball at now is really helping him and you can see his ability on the ball. If he’s playing at pace he can pick and choose his options.”
Slade’s attacking ability has never been in doubt but he has added steel to his all-round game and Hepher said: “He’s defending as well as any centre in the Prem and he’s starting to round off into a real top-quality player.”
“When he broke his leg he fought back in ridiculous record time and that was only due to the fact that, day in and day out, he fought for it and shows how committed he is to it.
“He rushed back so quickly from the leg injury and we probably had to rush him back to put him in quite early to get him up and running for the end of the season. It took a little bit of time to get over that and it wasn’t until part-way through last season that he suddenly started to forget about the leg.
“What he’s added is a bit of clarity to his game in the sense of being quick on to the ball and once he does that he’s dictating to defences and can pull his punches so to speak.”
While Slade always saw himself as a fly-half, he is now bidding to make his mark internationally as a centre, with Gareth Steenson holding on to Exeter’s No.10 shirt and George Ford and Owen Farrell ahead of him in the queue for England.
That doesn’t both either Slade or Eddie Jones.
“I’ve had a chat with Eddie and he’s looking at me as a 13 but he’s told me I don’t have to be playing 13 for Exeter,” said Slade who believes he benefitted from his starting role with England on this summer’s tour to Argentina.
“It was nice to play out there after being involved with the squad for two or three years, but only around the fringes. I’m just trying to play well for Exeter and see where it takes me.”
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