By Jeremy Guscott,
Henry Slade made a big impression in the victory over Ireland last weekend, but he has been a late bloomer at outside-centre in all senses.
He was first capped back in 2015, and that is usually the sign that you have arrived. However, since then there have been a few false starts and question marks over the Exeter player because 18 England caps, including 13 starts, is not the biggest return in that time.
A lot of it has to do with the quality of the competition that Slade has faced, with Jonathan Joseph the man in possession of the 13 shirt for most of the intervening period until he was injured last season.
Slade has also had to contend with the issue of having a utility tag, because he has played in almost every position in the Exeter backline from fly-half, to full-back, and both inside and outside-centre.
However, in the Eddie Jones era being a utility back is not all bad. There have been plusses for Slade and Elliot Daly, with both of them in the starting lineup at the moment, whereas George Ford, who is an out and out fly-half, is not.
In the past for me utility normally means bench, and that’s where Slade was for a while before concentrating on playing 13. Outside-centre has become a key specialist position, especially in defence where the main role is to block off the outside channel.
This is where so many tries are scored, and unless you have your organisation and understanding with the wing outside you, and with the 12 inside you, it is a recipe for trouble. Any mistakes you make are under the microscope because it is easy to get caught in no-man’s land.
Slade has had to learn that role at Exeter, and has done it at 12 and 13, which is a challenge – but on the evidence of his defence in Dublin the experience has paid dividends.
He is not my idea of a classic 13 with searing pace and an outside break, but the great thing about outside-centre is that it is a position which you can put your own stamp on. It can change depending on who makes it their own.
What is perfection? For instance, Conrad Smith was a workhorse of an outside-centre for the All Blacks, and was such a core member of the team that he won almost 100 caps. He was sneakily quick, aggressive in defence, and was very good at reading the game.
Slade is not too dissimilar, and that is a huge compliment.
He has a pretty extensive skill set, including a varied passing game, whether short, long – as with the pass to Jonny May which set up his first try against the Irish – or pop pass.
Slade also has a decent kicking game, although we’ve not yet seen him used in the way that Wales do with Jonathan Davies, with that one pass out and big booming kick downfield. It is a nice option to have, and England should not overlook it.
Another plus point is that Slade’s defence is getting better, and on a few occasions against Ireland he really threw himself into it. However, it is always a work-on. These days backs spend a lot of time analysing the opposition attack, but there are certain cardinal rules in defence that have stood the test of time.
The most important is that above all you should be watching the ball. There will be a number of calls, whether blitz or drift, but you should always look at the shape of the opposition attack – and if you take your eye off the ball even for a second you have no idea where it is going.
England’s defence against Ireland was very impressive, and was typified by the pass to Garry Ringrose where Courtney Lawes smashed him. The back line was also very effective, and there was one occasion when they went up and out, using the touchline as the extra defender, with Slade making a pressure tackle to force the ball into touch.
It was really smooth pressure defence, all in tandem, all synchronised, forcing the Irish attack into making a mistake. Any defender is vulnerable to being bounced off, or handed-off. It is all about timing and technique, and if you get 80 per cent right then you will usually be effective in making a dominant tackle.
Slade has to learn that you do not need to stand tall to look solid in defence. That is a big man’s tackle around the fringes, whereas backs will never make a dominant tackle by standing tall. You need to be bent at the knees and use that drive from a crouched position to make a full impact.
Slade’s two tries against Ireland will do him the world of good, because being a try-scoring centre gets you noticed, like a goal-scoring midfielder in football.
This support play for the first try was very good, and show he not only has a nose for the try line but also for making breaks and delivering the chances for either himself or his team-mates to put away.
The second try was more opportunist, and with Ireland trying to attack from deep, he anticipated it, took a slip catch, and had the awareness to stay in control and ground it.
He does not have the electrifying pace of Daly, and Joseph is also probably faster and has more experience with 40 caps, and an impressive strike rate with 17 tries. So, Slade can expect fierce competition, but in terms of anticipation and reading the game he is slightly better than Joseph.
Slade has moved from the No. 22 shirt and is fully paid-up as a Test No.13. He has no mortgage on the shirt, and he owns it at the moment. A good yardstick for any player is to ask themselves how influential they are, and do they lift the team?
Whether it was his two tries against Ireland, or his big defensive plays, Slade did that in Dublin. He has built a solid foundation, and if he keeps playing like he is he will be there for some time.
At one stage you wondered whether he would take the step to being a fully nailed-on international. Now Slade has taken that next step
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