- Slade excelling for England U20s after run in Plymouth first team
- Five Exeter Chiefs youngsters currently on loan at RFU Championship team
Photo: Getty Images
With every game that England play in this year’s U20 Six Nations Championship, the bigger the debt they owe to RFU Championship side Plymouth Albion becomes.
Indeed, 40 of the 70 points scored by the U20s this year in their opening three games have come courtesy of players dual-registered between Exeter Chiefs and Albion, with fly half Henry Slade extending his personal tally to 35 against France last weekend.
Along with fellow Exeter boys Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jack Arnott, this superb form can be directly attributed to the experience gained in the second tier of English rugby this season.
Slade, especially, is in no doubt as to the competitive edge a regular run of games has given him.
“My rugby’s developed massively, really. It’s the pressure that comes with trying to win league points,” he said. “There was never any fear factor before, so it’s helped with my maturity.”
Although still regulars for the Chiefs in the LV= Cup this season, Arnott, Slade and Cowan-Dickie, as well as Cowan-Dickie’s older brother Tom and Lloyd Fairbrother have played the majority of their rugby in the Championship this season, all for Plymouth Albion.
Slade knows that, despite his brilliant form in the U20s and impressive tally of points for Exeter in the LV= Cup, he needs to experience competitive men’s rugby before getting his chance in the Premiership.
“The Championship is a massive step up from what I’ve played before, and the Premiership is another massive step up.
“I think you need to bleed yourself into men’s rugby; the Championship’s been a great stepping-stone.”
Slade, like Arnott and Fairbrother, is a Plymouth boy born-and-bred and takes great pride in playing for his local team.
He made nine starts for Albion before joining the England squad, but was unable to match his prolific U20s scoring, playing at full back, with fly half Paul Roberts on chief kicking duty.
“I’ve been playing at full back for most of the time, but it’s been nice to have a change of position to get a different perspective on things.
“I’ve played a bit of full back before. You get a lot more time on the ball and a chance to run it out from the back.
“When you’re at 10, you’ve obviously got a lot more pressure on the ball.
“I liked it as a change, and when you go back to 10, you know where the full back is likely to be on the opposite team.”
Along with Sam Hill, the Chiefs’ centre who spent time at Cornish Pirates last season, the U20s' squad is rich with young West Country talent keen to impress at the top level.
Championship a great stepping-stone – Slade
The Championship has long been a great place for young players to get their first experience of men’s rugby, and so it has proved for this talented crop.
At 19, Slade, Arnott and Luke Cowan-Dickie still have time to improve, but for Fairbrother and Tom Cowan-Dickie, both 21 years old and both in their second spell in the Championship, this season represents a vital stage of their career.
Fairbrother is excelling in the U20s boys absence, and has made 15 appearances at prop, but Cowan-Dickie Sr. is finding starts harder to come by and tends to come on for the last 20 minutes of games at hooker.
Slade knows that it’s vitally important for the group to impress when they get their chance for Exeter in the LV= Cup.
“We had a really good run in the Cup this season and it’s been a great chance to show our potential to the coaches,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we were unlucky not to qualify, but I’m glad we all had a chance to show what we can do.”
Photo: Getty Images
As part of his development at Chiefs, Slade was included in the training squad for the first team game at Saracens to gain experience of the atmosphere around a Premiership fixture.
It gives him confidence that he’s in Chiefs’ long-term plans and he was pleased at having the opportunity.
“It gave me an insight into the match-day routine and the atmosphere that comes with the Premiership, so that was really good.
“It’s useful as a bit of a heads up for the future.”
Slade talks like a young fly half who is clearly going places.
A first team spot in the Chiefs' line-up remains a long-term priority, but for now, Slade is striving for immediate glory with the U20s.
“In terms of this year, I want to win the Six Nations and the Junior World Championship with the U20s and then, next year, push on to getting that first team spot with Exeter.”
Ambitious Slade may be, but if his career continues on the same path that it has started, those ambitions may just be fulfilled.