"It Was Unbelievable" - Ollie Sleightholme: England's Newest Wing Talks Premiership Title 'Stepping Stone' to Summer Tour - Ruck

“It Was Unbelievable” – Ollie Sleightholme: England’s Newest Wing Talks Premiership Title ‘Stepping Stone’ to Summer Tour

The past few days have been a rollercoaster ride for Northampton wing Ollie Sleightholme. The 24-year-old ended his 2023/24 campaign as a Premiership champion and the league’s top try scorer, before getting the call from Steve Borthwick to join the England squad, for the upcoming Summer tour of Japan and New Zealand.

Sleightholme played an integral part for the Saints in their 25-21 Premiership Final win over Bath, with his contributed try taking his scoring tally to 15 for the season. The wing went out to paint the town green, black and gold last weekend, with extra celebrations in order after getting the call-up from the England head coach.

Ollie Sleightholme of Northampton Saints scores a try during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final Match between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on 8 June 2024. Photo: Elli Birch/PPAUK

Sleightholme spoke in his first England media session at Twickenham yesterday, just 72 hours after scoring a try which lifted the roof off the Stadium known as ‘HQ’. The back-three flyer spoke about the fantastic reaction the Saints received as they returned to Northampton, with the Premiership trophy on display for the parade through the East Midlands town.

It was unbelievable. That just shows Northampton as a town. It’s a rugby town and everyone there is mad for it and the support we got out, here on Saturday, every week at the Gardens and there up for the parade was unbelievable.

I got into bed on Saturday night after the game. I obviously knew the bus tour was going ahead and I was thinking about how many people are actually going to turn up. You’re in the unknown and it could be an absolute flop and no one’s there but it was an unbelievable turnout. But you couldn’t hear yourself speak half the time. Saturday was as to be expected and then I got the call from Steve on Sunday, so Sunday was a pretty low-key one!”

Ollie Sleightholme of Northampton Saints during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final Match between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on 8 June 2024. Photo: Elli Birch/PPAUK

“I was at home, luckily, I was at home (when Borthwick called). We had a bus tour parade through town, I was just about to leave for that and I got the call.”

Northampton Saints have since confirmed a total of 16 departures from Franklin’s Gardens, following the Premiership Final triumph. Stalwarts of green, black and gold have departed the club, with the likes of Courtney Lawes, Alex Waller and Lewis Ludlam all bidding their farewells with winners medals draped around their necks. Despite the sadness of the many Saints leavers, Sleightholme believes that it was the perfect send off for such ‘legends of the club’.

“Exactly. Sometimes when you deserve it, that doesn’t happen either (perfect send-off), but I think that group really did deserve it. It’s just an amazing way to send off legends of the club and give them the sort of send-off that they deserve.”

Courtney Lawes, Captain of Northampton Saints celebrates with the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Trophy during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final Match between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on 8 June 2024. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

Whilst numerous members of Northampton’s old guard part ways with Franklin’s Gardens, there is also a strong contingent of Saints talents amongst England new generation. Borthwick has once again picked seven Northampton players for his squad, following in trend with the septet of Saints he selected for the 2024 Guinness Six Nations training camp.

The one change in Saints personnel from the previous camp sees Sleightholme come in, whilst Tom Pearson misses the grade this time around. A returning Tom Curry has put the England back row on notice, and the Sale Shark was preferred to Pearson for the upcoming Summer tour.

With six of his Saints teammates in support, and five of them lining up with him in the back-line, Slightholme feels right at home in the England squad, alongside Alex Coles, Fraser Dingwall, Tommy Freeman, George Furbank, Alex Mitchell and Fin Smith. Talking about how having so many club mates on hand has been helpful, Sleightholme said;

Ollie Sleightholme of Northampton Saints Celebrates with team mates during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Northampton Saints and Gloucester Rugby at Franklins Gardens Stadium on11 May. Photo: Richard Bierton/PPAUK

“I was just saying earlier, having a few of the lads that have been here, played a lot here, having them to give me advice and talk through things and help me settle in has been really, really helpful. With the bonds, that would translate to Test level as well because I think if it’s there, it’s there.

On Monday, Steve Borthwick discussed how having so many Saints populate the back-line has been beneficial to his England team. With just 14 days separating the Premiership Final and England’s first Summer fixture against Japan, the squad does not have the opportunities to introduce new partnerships against the Brave Blossoms, and can utilise already established connections that have been formed at club level.

Northampton Saints players celebrate after Ollie Sleightholme of Northampton Saints scored a try during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final Match between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on 8 June 2024. Photo: Elli Birch/PPAUK

“It’s one of the factors you consider when selecting. If you put this into context we train tomorrow here at Twickenham and then travel on Wednesday, train on Friday, and then we’re into Test week. At times you have a longer period, like pre-World Cup and during the Six Nations, which means you’re able to progress and build those relationships.

“I’ve said this previously but one of the things you have to do at international level is ensure you get the right combinations who have played together either at international level or club level so they have that cohesion. At Test level you don’t have the time to get that as quickly as you would like. It’s one of the considerations in selection.”

Borthwick then continued to discuss how the recent Premiership Final was a valuable dress rehearsal, to ready the uncapped players for their first experiences of the Test match stage. Sleightholme is one of those who would have taken valuable learnings from the 82,000 strong Twickenham crowd, ahead of upcoming England fixtures in the Japan’s state of the art National Stadium and New Zealand’s spiritual home of rugby; Eden Park.

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Steve Borthwick, Head Coach of England in attendance during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Semi Final Match between Bath Rugby and Sale Sharks at the Recreation Ground on 1 June 2024. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“When I talk to the players a lot about performing in the test match environment, and you’ll hear me talking about test match animals” Borthwick said. “Playing in the biggest stadiums, the biggest noises and atmospheres, the consequences for each action being enormous. And being able to perform, do the right thing at the right time. 

“I thought Saturday, playing in the Premiership Final at a sold out Twickenham, 82,000 people, in a game that was so tight, it’s a brilliant stepping stone towards test rugby. Nothing replicates test rugby. It’s called test rugby for a reason, it’s a proper test.”

“I thought in many ways it was a great game to replicate a stepping stone, towards the series. But I thought Saturday was an arm wrestle of a game where two teams have tried to find a way to win. 

Courtney Lawes, Captain of Northampton Saints and Lewis Ludlam of Northampton Saints lifts the winners trophy after the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final Match between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby at Twickenham Stadium on 8 June 2024. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“You also look at those Northampton players and the impact that they have. The pace, one little bit of space and their ability to finish. Ollie Sleightholme is an example, Alex Mitchell, being able to just find any gap and he’s away.”

Sleightholme reiterated his head coach, and expressed how the opportunity to play in front of a packed house at Twickenham has given him a good idea, as to what the test match environment will be like against Japan and the All Blacks this Summer.

There’s so many learnings you take from games like that and so many things you’d do differently, but so many things you’ll probably do the same. Like Steve said, that is probably a great stepping stone to what Test rugby is a bit like, with a Premiership final.”