Eddie Jones spent Sunday morning holding one-on-one meetings with his players before sending them home with a spring in their step. He then met his coaches and, again, you would expect a bit of mutual backslapping, though it is unclear if this was deemed the right time to address the elephant in the room. Maybe best to leave it for another day, but it is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Because when Owen Farrell returns to fitness Jones must address the issue of how his captain gets back into this side. Recent evidence suggests that on merit Farrell has a job on his hands and that is in no small part down to the form of Henry Slade, who against South Africa stepped out of the absent captain’s shadow, rose to the occasion when Manu Tuilagi limped off and produced his finest display in an England jersey. It has long since been lamented that while he has often shown his abundant talent in flashes he rarely seizes matches by the scruff of the neck. But at Twickenham on Saturday, Slade’s performance with ball in hand was as courageous as it was classy.
It came after he had been installed as the vice-captain with Farrell and Ellis Genge both missing and Slade has now started 12 of England’s last 13 matches, missing only the dismal defeat in Ireland. If he seemed liberated without Farrell alongside him in the centres perhaps George Ford’s omission from the squad has had a similar effect too. It was he who was expected to make way against Australia with Farrell returning but as it was Tuilagi was moved to the wing so that Slade kept hold of the No 13 jersey and it was he who was central to England’s attacking gameplan against the Springboks.
As Jones had alluded to previously, England wanted to implement a rope-a-dope strategy and the attack coach Martin Gleeson had been tasked with finding a way to beat the Springboks’ blitz defence. Slade’s passing ability was key to England’s success in that regard, notably when he whipped the ball to Tuilagi for the opening try. It was also Slade who prized open the gap for Joe Marchant to make the break for Raffi Quirke’s try and he who fizzed a long pass to Freddie Steward in a move that ultimately led to the full-back going over.
“We wanted to do something a bit different,” said Jones. “This has been the focus of our autumn campaign and we didn’t want to attack the way they wanted us to attack. We either wanted to attack really tight or we wanted to attack fairly wide, where they’re not usually attacked but Glees came up with a few plays that allowed us to get to the outside of their last defender, who closes pretty quickly.”
After the Springboks had been put to the sword it was instructive to hear Jones reflect on when Slade was first coming on to the scene. He had impressed on his debut in August 2015 enough to earn inclusion in the World Cup squad and it has since emerged that England’s rivals, chiefly New Zealand who had expected to face Stuart Lancaster’s side in the knockout stages, were fearful of the impact the then 22-year-old could have.
As it was, he featured just once, against Uruguay, by which stage England were already eliminated. “I always remember, leading up to the World Cup in 2015, he played a couple of practice games and was outstanding, then didn’t feature in that World Cup,” added Jones. “In his first bit of time with us, he was sort of in and out, but he’s really cemented a spot at 13 now, grown in terms of his influence on the team.”
That last point is interesting because Slade played at inside centre for most of Saturday’s match, after Tuilagi was withdrawn. He has only started there a handful of times and never really taken to it but Marcus Smith’s extra zip at fly-half gave Slade that little bit more time with which to weave his magic against the Springboks. It would be a shame if it is the last we see of that partnership.