Find out why things are clicking for the Exeter and England centre
Henry Slade on fatherhood, fans and fundamentals
Ask a rugby player who has been the biggest influence on their career and most will pick out a coach or two, maybe highlight the support of their parents. For Henry Slade, though, it’s his daughter, Olive. She may not be giving him skills advice or discussing the best tactics for Test rugby, but her arrival last August has had a profound impact on Slade.
“There have been a lot of coaches, at Exeter, at school, with England, but my daughter being born has just changed my outlook on everything,” says the 27-year-old Exeter Chiefs and England centre when discussing his influences.
“I think I’ve been playing good rugby since she’s been born. I’m not wearing myself out constantly worrying about playing, things going on in my head, something I did wrong or getting caught up with something I did well.
“I get the chance to come back after training, sit with her and make ridiculous noises at her to see if she’ll smile. After training or a game, seeing her little giggles makes me so happy. Just switching off, forgetting about rugby, is so important.
“It’s changed my life a lot, and definitely in a positive way. The biggest thing is that beforehand you’d think about how your decision would impact yourself, then close family and friends; now my first thought in every decision I make in life is, ‘How will that affect Olive?’ It all goes back to her.”
For the 2019 World Cup final against South Africa, Slade had ‘Frank’, the name of his Cockapoo, inscribed on his boots. The next time he opts for such messaging on his footwear in a match, one boot will be dedicated to Olive and the other to Frank. He says Megan, his partner, has been “unbelievable” since becoming a mother but she misses out on the boot honour!
Frank also helps Slade to switch off from rugby and he’s pleased with how his dog has reacted to the new addition to the family. “We were a bit nervous beforehand,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of young cousins and Frank hasn’t been around them much but the few times he has, he got a bit agitated when they pulled his hair.
“In the months before Olive was born, a few of the lads had young kids, so we were going to see them, trying to get him used to the idea of having a kid around. He was really good with those kids and that filled us with confidence, then since Olive has been here he’s been amazing. He sits and guards her; it’s really cute actually.”
Having a different focus off the pitch certainly seems to be paying dividends on it. Slade signed off 2020 with four trophies, winning the Heineken Champions Cup, Gallagher Premiership and Guinness Six Nations on successive weekends followed by the Autumn Nations Cup in early December. He also scored tries in Exeter’s two finals against Racing 92 and Wasps, as well as in England’s last championship match against Italy.
It was the score in the Premiership final that best showcased his skill-set: the gliding run through Wasps’ defence after receiving the ball on the opponents’ 22, the pace to sprint clear and the strength to get the ball down despite the tackle of Jacob Umaga.
He always seems to have time when he gets the ball, as if everything and everyone around him slows down to await his next move. That could be put down to the proficiency of his technique, which he honed as a teenager to be able to take on bigger players.
“I didn’t start growing until I was 16, so until then, when I was 13, 14, 15, I was playing people twice the size of me. If you don’t get your technique right when you’re that much smaller there’s no way you’ll keep up. I’m taking the positives of being smaller then and having to nail all the basics, the skills, the passing techniques.
“My legs were nowhere near as strong as some lads but I could kick it as far. That comes from technique and then when you get that strength, you push on and overtake maybe. Definitely as a small guy you have to take all the help you can get from technique.”
When Rugby World interviewed Slade after the 2015 World Cup, he showed us his technique for turning off a light switch. It was very specific and one of many OCD-type processes he followed at the time. However, in the past couple of years he has reined back those habits, in life and rugby, and taken a more reasoned approach to things.
“A few years ago it caused me a lot of stress; it was taking over a bit, becoming more about that rather than what I was doing in a game. It’s taking steps to reduce that and get rid of that. It’s a weight off the shoulders and I feel immeasurably better.
“I talked about my concerns with Matt Thombs, a psychologist, and he talked about it logically. For example, me turning off a light switch is not going to have any impact or shift on the universe that means I’ll get injured in the next game or something bad will happen to my family.
“Thinking logically about it, it won’t have any effect at all, so I tried doing things in training and then taking steps in games and everything went well. There are still a few bits I do but I’m way better. I’m definitely making progress with it.”
Again, it’s that ability to take the focus away from rugby that is significant, to have that balance so rugby isn’t the be-all and end-all. His friend Leon Fricker, a pro golfer, is someone else who helps in that department. They used to live together and, like Olive now, Fricker would help Slade take his mind off rugby as well as be able to relate to the unique pressures of elite sport. They would also reminisce about their own sporting rivalry.
The pair were neighbours growing up, their competitiveness evident back then as they played one-on-one rugby or football in the garden, with targets like the first to 20 tries or 50 goals to win.
“We’d be at it for hours and hours,” says Slade. “Everything was a competition; we’ve very similar in mindset and that attitude of wanting to win. That’s big, the most important part of being a sportsman is being successful. If you don’t want to win there’s no point in playing.”
Winning certainly became a habit for Slade in 2020, whether playing for Exeter or England. Both environments, he says, challenge him and drive him to improve. Such is the talent in those squads, and the competition for places it engenders, that you need to continually raise your game.
For all that Slade can make things look easy amidst the intensity of a Test match, he’ll have put in the hard work in training – his workout videos during lockdown were evidence of that. People remember the tries, the soft passes, the booming touchfinders, but his influence is just as keenly felt in defence.
Take the Chiefs’ first European triumph against Racing: Slade was the only Exeter back to hit double figures for tackles in that match and he also made more than half the starting forwards. With or without the ball, his authority is growing for club and country.
So after such a memorable 2020, how can Slade top it this year? “Rugby-wise, the only way it could get better is if we have supporters there, to have everyone behind us on the day. It’s great to get well wishes from fans on social media, but it’s not quite the same doing that without fans there, so hopefully everyone gets back in soon.
“Everything is strange (without fans) – you hear all the opposition calls and they hear our calls; it’s so different. At Sandy Park we have a really vocal set of supporters, playing for England at Twickenham with 80,000 fans cheering you on is an unbelievable feeling; it’s so good that it spurs you on, that energy the crowd creates.
“I even really enjoy away grounds. I remember going to Wales in the Six Nations when we lost to them in Cardiff (in 2019), Josh Adams scored in the corner and the place went absolutely mental; my ears actually popped it was so loud.
“Even being on the receiving end of it from fans in the stadium it makes such a better atmosphere and I can’t stress how important that is for the game.”
Olive and Megan were among the 2,000 fans allowed into Twickenham for the Autumn Nations Cup final against France as rugby took its first steps to reintroducing crowds in the Covid era, but the new variants mean the Six Nations is being played behind closed doors. Still, should England retain their championship title, Slade will have won five trophies in as many months.
There are sacrifices too, though, like being away from Olive when in England camp. “It is tough but I’m okay with it at the minute because it’s just me missing her, she probably didn’t even know I was gone. She recognised me when I came back, though, which is a positive.
“When it gets to the stage when she realises I’m going for a week or a couple of weeks or longer and she doesn’t want me to, that will pull on the heartstrings, but at the minute it’s just me missing her, it’s my pain.”
More silverware will no doubt be on Slade’s agenda over the coming months, but so is making Olive smile. It’s all about balance.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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