Exeter Chiefs Head Coach Rob Baxter is delighted in the recent form shown by Henry Slade, as the centre pushes for a return to the England squad for the 2024 Six Nations. Baxter’s side take on Bath Rugby this Saturday, with a key battle taking shape between Slade and Bath centre Ollie Lawrence.
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With Joe Marchant out of the England fold following his move to Stade Francais, a vacancy has opened up in Steve Borthwick’s midfield, that both Slade and Lawrence have been stating their claims for. The two centres have had excellent starts to the Premiership season, and are set to clash at the Recreation Ground this weekend.
However, despite the narrative of the duo contesting for the England jersey, Baxter believes that the two midfielders could instead form a strong test match partnership.
“It’s obviously going to be interesting, isn’t it? Because I actually think both of them are on form, aren’t they. Their playing very well. I think Slade is showing the form that he showed in the past, that got him selected for England. So I’m obviously delighted from a club point of view and for ‘Sladey’, he’s showing such good form.
“But then, so is Ollie Lawrence. He’s started with a real bang hasn’t he, coming back from the World Cup. I can understand why people think it’s an intriguing battle. But let’s remember that there are two centre slots, in an England team. And to me, they would look like a pretty good combination. So, you know, and maybe that both of them playing well, and both of them having a good game this weekend, gives them both great opportunities.
“Personally for me, I hope Sladey has a fantastic game, and Ollie Lawrence has a bit of a stinker on the weekend. But from a positional and playing point of view, I think they’re two guys who obviously have still got a lot to offer internationally, and will be very, very keen, to show their qualities in what is a top four clash.
“So I think it’s going to be one of the key areas of the game. And as I said, I think I think Slade is more than ready for it.”
Another Exeter player who has been generating quite the buzz, is 23-year-old Rus Tuima. The powerhouse has really come into his own in the early goings of this season, after a break-out year in Exeter’s triumphant 2022 Premiership Rugby Cup campaign. Having gained international recognition at England U18s and U20s, and first team exposure in a loan to Cornish Pirates, Tuima is one of the fastest rising talents in the Premiership, with the discussion growing around his Engand contention.
The Fijian-born forward has been moved up the ranks for the Chiefs, with his raised pecking order coinciding in his shift from back-row to lock. Baxter talked about the decision to put Tuima in the row, where he has since been thriving in the English top flight.
“I think it’s been a good move for Rusi. I think the big thing it does is that it allows his strengths to look like real strengths. Because it allows things like his ball carrying and his physicality and defence, and the quality of his handling, etc, they look like kind of highlights for a second row. Whereas maybe sometimes when he plays in the back-row, there’s not quite enough of them in the game to look like highlights. Because people expect, or are waiting for other things to happen. The big breaks or big moments, or say the big turnovers on the floor.
“Where as when you’re playing in the lock, you know, if our set piece goes well, his aerial skills are improving all the time. If our scrum goes well, and our line-out goes well, you know, you see this big guy coming up with these carriers or coming up with these moments, and it starts to look like a good package for a lock. I think that’s what’s really benefited him.
“Will he get enough time to grow towards the England squad, that’s a little bit early for me to say. I think the important thing for him, he’s in that really interesting situation for a young player to just focus on the day to day. Not even the week to week, focus on the day to day, that’s what’s getting him in our team. That’s what’s allowing us to be a team, that’s functioning around him.
“That’s ultimately what eventually gets you to your goals and your dreams, is getting the team there. I think that’s what he’s got to do, he’s just got to get his head down, work hard, keep doing what he’s doing, and who knows where his journey may take him.”
Exeter ended their 13-month search for a win away from home in the Premiership, with their victory last Sunday against Newcastle Falcons. The Chiefs enjoyed the long journey back home to Devon, yet are back on the road for their next two matches. Exeter head up to Somerset for this weekend’s West Country clash with Bath, before jetting off the France in their opening Champions Cup fixture against Toulon.
Baxter is delighted to see his squad end their losing streak on the road, and he believes that it has worked wonders for the Chiefs’ mentality ahead of back-to-back away trips.
“We’ve broken that kind of ‘away duck’ now, which is very important for us. I think that’s probably given us a bit of confidence in the kind of way you need to play. But the biggest thing you need to have away from home, is you need to have a little bit of confidence in what you do, and how you play. That protects you a little bit and makes things tough for the opposition. I think we did that for the first time really well against Newcastle, and actually we did it better in Newcastle than we’ve done in a couple of home games.
“Despite us winning at home, we probably had a little bit more in attack, or we’ve got away with a few things that we haven’t been getting away with, away from home. But on the whole, the Newcastle game proved that there’s elements of control when you get into a game, that is going to be huge against Bath.
Bath work to control elements in the game, we’ve got to work just as hard to control elements in the game and see what comes out of it. Tou could see that in the Bath v Sale game.
“I almost think both teams cancelled themselves out, for large parts of the game. Both teams kind of went toe-to-toe in the middle of the pitch, and it took quite a long time for either team to get an ascendancy. So you can kind of tell, if you can match them in areas of the game, around a set piece and in that middle third, and run a little bit of a territory battle, you can keep yourself in the game. We’ve got to make sure that we get those bits 100% right, and we keep ourselves in the game, we couldn’t do that in the Prem Cup.”
As Baxter mentioned, the last meeting between Exeter and Bath came in the Premiership Rugby Cup ahead of the season. Bath ran out an impressive 34-17 win over the Chiefs, to close out the pool stage and set out into the Premiership in hot form. Baxter continued to discuss the side’s shortcomings in that match, and how it was quite the wake up call ahead of the 2023/24 Premiership season.
“Our physicality and our energy in the game didn’t allow us to (win). Baxter added. “We’ve got to address that first, and then we’ve got to make sure we look to take some opportunities to keep the score-board ticking over.
“As I said to the lads ‘We’ve got to be playing in every Premiership game with the expectation that the very least we can do, is get a bonus point’, because that’s so close you have to be. You have to in and around the team to give yourself a chance to win, and we want to make sure we’re well focused on that, on the weekend.”
“Actually, in hindsight, it hasn’t worked out too bad for us, because it gave us a bit of a slap in the face going into the Premiership. It did mean we started off flat-out in the Premiership, and we did we start with a real bang, real fire, real presence about us because we’d had that slap in the face.”
Bath fly half Finn Russell has also had a confident start to his time in the Premiership, after arriving from Racing 92. Baxter spoke about how his side is more than aware of the talented Scotland talisman, yet are not planning to enforce strict defensive measures to stop his game. The Exeter Director of Rugby believes that this can sometimes play to the favour of the Scottish halfback.
“I think in a way, you’ve got to be a bit careful, because I think that’s probably his strength, is that when he becomes the bit you go after, that’s probably what allows him all his options. Because, he creates the options elsewhere. Obviously, we’ve talked about him, and we want to make sure he feels like he’s under pressure.
“But, I don’t think you can do that with any particular individual plan. To keep halfbacks under pressure, you have to challenge at the breakdown, you have to challenge at the set piece, you have to obviously maintain a level of line speed and line integrity around him. So we’ve talked through those elements, but they’re elements we talk about every week, in trying to keep teams under pressure.
“I don’t know if there’s a special plan you could put in place for him.” Baxter continued. “Don’t forget, we’ve defended against him before, when he played at Racing, we defended against kind of maverick almost, incredibly individual players, when we played in big Heineken Cup games, and we’ve always taken the approach, that it’s never going to be one person taking the responsibility. It’s always going to be the four or five guys nearest the ball. That’s very much what will push this weekend.”
Finn Russell has been one such player who made a recent club move against the flow of traffic. With many of the Premiership’s top talents crossing the channel in favour of France, it was refreshing to see Russell chose the English top division over the Top 14 when his move was announced last Summer. Baxter discussed how this is a positive sign that the Premiership is getting back to it’s former strengths, as after Sandy Park’s mass exodus, Chiefs fans are now seeing a crop of talented young players rise through the ranks.
“I’m very confident that you will see the Premiership become one of the top leagues in world rugby again, if people think it’s slipped off that now. You know, we’re only going through like a patch, and it’s as I said before, you know, it’s the responsibility of all of us involved in the game to get us back on a growth pattern.”
“You know, every time senior players move on or leave the league, there’s a vacuum that gets filled with young and exciting talent. I’ve probably seen more column inches now talked about, say ‘Manny’, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso than any other young player I’ve seen for quite a while. Because, there’s a vacuum that’s being filled and, is he a guy who fills it for either for England or for Wales?
“There’s a fair bit being written about Henry Arundell playing in France, his future looks like it’s back in England. I think you’re going to see plenty of young, emerging talent come through in this period. As you’ve had a group of senior players who potentially are looking abroad, but the guys who are potentially looking abroad are guys, who’ve kind of done well in the Premiership already. Their time has been and gone.
“This is not an emerging 21, 22-year-old diving over to France is there. I think that’s what we should encourage. That’s what should encourage us.”
“A load of clubs have some top young talent coming through, and that’s what we want to see. That’s what the Premiership needs to evolve over these growth cycles.
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Greatest rugby union XV of all-time:
15. Serge Blanco (France)
The French icon’s international career with France saw the flamboyant fullback perform various outlandish levels of skill while winning Five Nation Grand Slams in 1981 and 1987 as well as four further titles.
Blanco was a threat from everywhere on the field and often took risks that we very rarely see nowadays. In total, he won 93 caps for France during his 11-year international career between 1980 and 1991, which was a record when he retired.
He also scored an imposing 233 points and is a true legend of the sport.
Did you know: Images of Blanco’s on-field heroics can always be viewed ironically alongside images of him strutting along the touchline nursing a cigarette.
Honourable mentions: JPR Williams (Wales), Jason Robinson (England), Percy Montgomery (South Africa)
14. Jonah Lomu (New Zealand)
The New Zealander remains the joint all-time top try scorer at the Rugby World Cup along with Bryan Habana, crossing the whitewash on 15 different occasions across the 1995 and 1999 tournaments.
The easiest selection in a greatest ever XV.
Originally of Tongan descent, it was Lomu who made it glamorous to be a big, bruising winger, even though his stature could have easily seen him fill in at centre or somewhere in the pack.
Much like the Juggernaut of the Marvel Universe, there wasn’t much that could stop Lomu once he’d gotten into a stride.
Did you know: In September 2009, Lomu took part in an amateur bodybuilding contest, finishing second in two categories
Honourable mentions: Bryan Habana (South Africa), Doug Howlett (New Zealand), Shane Williams (Wales)
13. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
The former Ireland and British and Irish Lions Skipper Brian O’Driscoll was one of the most consistent performers in the world for over a decade.
He hung up his boots in 2014 after accumulating 133 caps for Ireland with a fantastic return of 245 points. In the emerald green, he triumphed in the Six Nations in 2009 (Grand Slam) and 2014 as well as being chosen as Player of the Tournament in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
The Dublin-born is also the highest all-time Irish record try scorer with an incredible 46 scores, and also led his country more times than any other player.
Did you know: O’Driscoll was chosen as Player of the Tournament in the 2006, 2007 and 2009 RBS Six Nations Championships.
Honourable mentions: Jeremy Guscott (England), Will Greenwood (England), Frank Bunce (New Zealand)