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'We want to be the ones being the aggressors' - Slade has Leinster scalp in his sights

The Exeter centre is looking to make a statement ahead of the impending Lions squad announcement.

Exeter's Henry Slade.
Exeter's Henry Slade.
Image: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

HENRY SLADE DOESN’T take too long to collect his thoughts when asked about his previous experiences playing against Leinster.

The Exeter centre was involved in both games in the 2017/18 Champions Cup season. That December, Leinster beat Exeter at their own game in Sandy Park – ending a 12-month unbeaten home record in the process – grinding out an ugly win which saw the visitors patiently work their way through 44 phases before striking for the crucial late score via Jack Conan.

Six days later the Chiefs raced into a 17-3 lead in the first-half at the Aviva Stadium, only for the deadly accuracy of Isa Nacewa’s right boot and a Luke McGrath try to rescue an unlikely Leinster win.

That year saw Leinster at their brilliant best, never out of the fight and always able to adapt accordingly to beat the opposition by whatever means were necessary. Leo Cullen’s side ended the season as Champions Cup and Pro14 double-winners.

Exeter finished the pool stages second to Leinster in Pool 3, but the 12-point gap between the sides suggested the Premiership outfit still had some way to go if they were going to mix it with European rugby’s elite.

Three years later, Exeter now sit top of the pile. Rob Baxter’s side are the team to beat having capped a stunning decade by scooping a European Cup and Premiership double last year.

Like all the best teams, they’ve already parked that. All that matters is what comes next. Tomorrow, that involves a chance to finally put the demons of 2017 to bed, a pair of defeats which served an emerging Exeter side with a reality check.

“I guess what came out of that was frustration, maybe a bit of naivety when we played them here last time,” says Slade.

“Then we went to Dublin and played them in the Aviva, we built up a strong lead in the first-half but I think the consistency of what they do was very key… So they plugged away, kept chipping away at the scoreboard, penalty, penalty and they eventually got the lead. 

garry-ringrose-with-henry-slade Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“That was maybe where we were on our journey then. We were younger, a bit naive and a bit less inclined to be as consistent to do things over and over again which is required at that level. So I think we’re a much better side for it now. They’ve improved as well but, yeah, we’re feeling good.

“The amount of time this group has been together, it’s about moving on and moving forward really. We’ve been through some lows we’ve been through some highs and we’ve come off them and learnt things about each other, about how we’re playing.

“I feel we’re in a good place at the minute but it doesn’t come about without hard work.”

Those two 2017 games are the only time Slade has played Leinster. He has, however, lined out against Ireland three times in the last two years. He has always come out on the winning side against Ireland, having missed this year’s Six Nations game through injury.

In learning how to beat Ireland, the 28-year-old feels he’s gained a good understanding of what is required to topple a Leinster side which contains many of the same faces.

“They’ve got lots of internationals in the Ireland set-up, so we know how hard they fight for everything and how good they are in the breakdown,” he says.

We have to be very good there, very strong in there. Aerially, we know they come after you in the high ball as well, there are a few areas we know we’ll have to be strong, be smart, but obviously we’ve got to give them the respect they deserve but not too much, because we want to be the ones being the aggressors. 

“We know how hard they scrap for everything, we know the breakdown is going to be very important, especially the way it is reffed in Europe, we need to be quick in there, and physical in there. 

“In the outside channels they’ve got some boys who can beat you with footwork and power so we know we have to be strong out there.

“The breakdown’s going to be a big one I think because of how it is reffed slightly differently in Europe, so we have to be very, very strong and quick in there.”

Slade was one of the few players to impress across England’s underwhelming Six Nations campaign, even if the conservative gameplan implemented by Eddie Jones didn’t quite play to his strengths.

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The versatile back has grown to become a key cog in the Exeter machine since making his debut back in 2012, earning 161 caps to date. While not the most physical centre around, Slade brings speed, smart footwork and a strong passing game in the position. 

henry-slade-is-challenged-by-xavier-mignot Slade offloads the ball under pressure from Lyon's Xavier Mignot last weekend. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

Man of the match in last season’s Champions Cup final win over Racing, he’s also not been afraid to outline his ambition of touring with the Lions this summer, and knows that high-profile games like this offer the perfect stage to showcase your ability.

“I mean, I’m just trying to play as well as I can each week, to be honest. I keep trying to work on my strengths, my weaknesses.

“I guess my skill-set and my ability is to run and kick-pass (are my strengths), maybe my slight deficit is the power and strength in contact, that’s something I’ve been working on, doing drills with and doing stuff in the gym, trying to keep working on that and if that’s something that gets me noticed, then brilliant, but what I’m doing is trying to get better each day, in each game.

“It’s a big opportunity but I don’t want to get too worried about getting caught up in, ‘I want to play well in this because of that’… I’m just trying to do my job for Exeter at the weekend and these boys, and when we play well collectively, it allows individuals to shine, so hopefully I can do my job and we’ll be up for it.”

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Murray Kinsella, Bernard Jackman and Gavan Casey look back on a mixed weekend in Europe for the provinces before previewing Exeter-Leinster and Wales-Ireland.

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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