As England boss Stuart Lancaster searches for his first-choice centre combination, youngsters Sam Hill and Henry Slade are impressing in the Exeter Chiefs midfield. We analyse their roles in a 25-22 defeat of Gloucester on Friday.
A frenetic, dramatic opening to the Aviva Premiership campaign has reinforced one thing robustly – England have plenty of options. In every position, there are at least two very viable contenders with the talent and mind-set to succeed at Test level.
However, this autumn comprises of consecutive fixtures against New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and Australia. In other words, Stuart Lancaster faces three main rivals for World Cup glory and one blockbuster underdog. As the countdown to 2015’s global showpiece dips under a year, Twickenham will see a meaningful dress rehearsal in November.
For England, individual prowess is not enough. Cohesion has to come and combinations must be settled upon. Nowhere is this more obvious than in midfield, where two of Billy Twelvetrees, Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond, Luther Burrell and Manu Tuilagi are likely to be given time to gel.
Of course there are outside bets. Sam Burgess will give it a big, burly charge. Owen Farrell could be shunted out one to incorporate the skills of George Ford, Danny Cipriani or Freddie Burns. To go way left-field, the vision of Alex Goode might give England an altogether different dimension.
At the moment though, a pair of 21 year-old Exeter Chiefs are excelling. Inside centre Sam Hill is comprehensively carving up backlines with some monstrous physicality. Then there is Henry Slade, oozing class at outside centre. An elegant runner and silky passer, his luminous boots and eye-catching ability almost seem misplaced on such a modest, unassuming young man.
Hill and Slade wore the 12 and 10 shirts for England Under 20’s maiden Junior World Championship win last summer, but Rob Baxter has pushed the latter wider to include stalwart fly-half Gareth Steenson and shoehorn another distributor into his expansive gameplan. It’s working very nicely. In three matches – a thrashing of London Welsh, a close defeat to Leicester and Friday’s tight 25-22 win over Gloucester – the pairing has been excellent.
This series of clips and screenshots show how well the tyros complement one another. First, watch how Hill hauls Chiefs onto the front foot with an outstanding piece of athleticism. At this point, Exeter were 12-6 down having shipped two tries and were in need of inspiration.
From a rather innocuous situation, the former Cornish Pirate collects an ordinary pass from scrum-half Will Chudley and unbalances Tom Palmer, the defender opposite him, with some neat footwork before driving his legs powerfully in contact. He fights to free his right arm and gets away a nice offload to rampaging Thomas Waldrom.
Exeter have momentum, but Gloucester scramble well. Though the hosts are well set, Steenson and Hill almost conjure something special.
While Hill does brilliantly to gather possession from this perfectly-weighted chip, Exeter could not take advantage and the movement petered out. Even so, referee Matt Carley penalises Ross Moriarty for a late hit on Steenson and the visitors get three points and a reward for their sprightly passage of play.
On taking a closer look at how Chiefs were positioned on this phase, we can understand a great deal about how they as a side – and Hill and Slade in particular – approach attack.
Before Steenson (circled in white) gathers the ball, Hill and Slade have effectively switched positions. The former stands at a traditional outside centre spot, with the latter inside him. Hill then adopts a hard line and Slade fades behind. This is called a ‘slice’ play and essentially gives their fly-half three ways of using them.
Hill can chase a dink over the top as in this instance. More conventionally, he can launch into a strong carry or hold up the drift and become a defender-attracting decoy. If this third option is taken, Slade can come off the pass on outside arc and link up with his back three.
Here is an example of a similar pattern from the first half. Steenson bypasses forward runners to play in Slade on the second wave.
Only a fine tackle from opposite number Henry Purdy, an ex-England Under 20 teammate, prevents Slade from scything down the right flank with wing Matt Jess in support. In any case, the concern is planted in Gloucester’s minds – Exeter can go wide using this pattern. Now watch this clip from the second half.
Even though the ball from a messy scrum comes very slowly, Chiefs nearly manufacture a linebreak with another variation of this ‘slice’ play. Again, Hill and Slade are so important. Look at this screenshot from the moment Slade passes to Jess.
In the red circle, we see Hill, who has has once more offered himself on a direct route. Slade (white circle) has been played in behind that run on the ‘slice’ by Steenson (blue circle). Trying to prevent Slade escaping on the outside, Purdy has gambled and rushed up this time. While he makes a decent tackle, he leaves a gap between his left shoulder and Billy Twelvetrees, who is held up by Hill. Jess (yellow circle) has an inviting hole to scamper into.
This may seem simplistic, but it is a sturdy foundation that brings a plethora of different options and is extremely tough to stop – even if you know what is coming. With everyone carrying out their individual roles in unison, any defence can be tested.
Indeed, sound decision-making and game management were key factors in Exeter’s gutsy result. Slade’s left boot, a significant weapon, helped as well. He stroked over two penalties from over 40 metres and also provided an outlet to hoof the ball out of Chiefs territory. In the below clip, see how the ‘slice’ movement produces a perfect platform for what is known as a ‘wipers’ clearance – a diagonal kick away from the breakdown.
This sweet strike defines the skill that is compelling some respected critics to put Slade forward as a potential partner for Tuilagi in England’s World Cup midfield. It is certainly a tasty prospect.
However, Slade would be the first to admit that his mate Hill is just as worthy of praise – and not just in attack. Together, the duo made 18 tackles and put their heads where it hurt in many rucks. Happy to muck in as part of Baxter’s all-action ethos, they truly epitomise the exciting Exeter way.