Soon after Mark McCall had described Henry Slade’s match-swinging nudge as “one of the great kicks of all time”, the man himself was less keen to take any praise for his role in Exeter’s remarkable Aviva Premiership semifinal win over Saracens.
“It was not just about the kick,” Slade insisted. But ask anyone who was there at Sandy Park on Saturday and they will talk long into the summer about when the man wearing No. 23 sent Exeter in the direction of Twickenham this coming weekend; when, 65 metres out from Saracens’ tryline, he found their five-metre line with a penalty.
Saracens appeared to have found a way to beat Exeter on Saturday, but Henry Slade and Sam Simmonds had other ideas.
There were plenty of talking points following two thrilling Aviva Premiership semifinals that saw Exeter and Wasps clinch their place in the Twickenham final.
The wind had been causing havoc with the kickers throughout Saturday’s Premiership playoff. Owen Farrell and Gareth Steenson had both missed kicks for touch. Then came the shift up in golf club as they attempted to navigate the south westerly gusts hurtling off the Exe estuary, but resulted in kicks going out on the full. Years of practise were being tested by the Sandy Park microclimate.
Slade had started on the bench, and came on after 68 minutes for Phil Dollman. In last season’s final — a match Exeter lost against Saracens — Slade had struggled, trying to take on too much responsibility, with the pressure affecting his boundless talent.
But at home in Sandy Park, the ground where he grew up idolising the Chiefs of yesteryear, he knew the intricacies and backed himself to put in the kick which would shift the game, in its final throes, into Exeter’s favour.
Steenson usually takes on kicking responsibilities, and in an interview with ESPN last week spoke of how he remembered the young Slade coming to watch training when he was part of the academy. He’s now an England international and part of the furniture at Sandy Park. Steenson was happy to let Slade use his immense left boot to steer Exeter into the game-winning part of the pitch.
“It was terrific,” Steenson said. “We said for Henry to go for it. It had to be within a certain range to give us a chance, and fair play to him, it was a heck of a shot.
“He had to step up and hit it, and he showed a bit of class there, showed a bit of bottle and put us in a good position. It’s up there in terms of great kicks.”
The wind is an unpredictable beast at Sandy Park. Just when you think you’ve gauged it, it shifts again. Slade had warmed up in that area of the pitch before the semifinal, and knew that with the south-westerly gust behind him, it would give him some extra legs. Even then, a misjudgement would have cost Exeter a chance to reach their second final in as many years.
But then Slade’s muscle memory kicked in.
“I just practised it enough times throughout my career and the season. I had the kick hundreds of times in practice throughout the last few weeks. I am just thankful that it came off.
Ollie Devoto of Exeter Chiefs is tackled by Duncan Taylor of Saracens in the Premiership semifinal. Steve Bardens/Getty Images
“It came off the boot really nice. With only a minute left, I had to go for it and try to gain as much territory as possible.
“It probably went a couple of metres further than I intended but that’s probably the wind carrying it that way. I was trying to get it deep into the 22 because if we get our maul five-10 metres then it is going to be very hard.
“We had a minute left and that was more than enough for me to try to get it into that corner and give our forwards the best chance to put it over. That was only half the job and the boys had to put a hell of a drive together to get over the line. It was not just about the kick.”
From there Dave Dennis took Jack Yeandle’s lineout, Sam Simmonds stripped the ball from his teammate and as the maul split into two pods, Yeandle charged over Saracens’ line. Exeter’s joy, contrasted by Saracens’ exhaustion after fighting their way back into a match.
“We had the game with two minutes left, but then came one of the great kicks of all time from Henry Slade,” McCall said. “He puts that anywhere else and I would be sitting here talking about one of the great wins and fights from a team who were a bit tired.”
For Exeter, it gives them a chance to make amends on last year’s 28-20 final loss to Saracens. By their own admission they weren’t ready for that occasion. Even the usually level-headed Slade struggled with the pressure. But judging from how they managed to close out Saturday’s semifinal, they will be in a different realm of mental strength against Wasps at Twickenham.
“Last year we were happy to be in the final regardless of the result,” Slade said. “Obviously we were disappointed not to have won but this year we set our stall out early that we wanted to win the league and put ourselves in the best opportunity to do that.
“Every season we have been in the Premiership we have incrementally improved and the only way for us to improve on last year is to win it.”
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY