Henry Slade’s blitz defence makes him more important to England than ever

Henry Slade in training
Henry Slade will be expected to be effective on both sides of the ball at Murrayfield - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

After two appearances alongside Fraser Dingwall to begin this Six Nations campaign, Henry Slade has now started for England alongside 12 different centres.

That is only one fewer than Michael Atherton’s tally of opening partners over an England Test cricket career spanning 14 years and 115 matches. Stubborn and stoic, the Lancashire right-hander was renowned for enduring turbulence.

Slade, still just 30, will reach 60 caps this weekend; just over half of Atherton’s cricketing haul. That Slade has been paired with so many midfield colleagues since his debut in 2015 – from Sam Burgess to Ben Te’o via Piers Francis and Dan Kelly – accentuates the relentless upheaval in those positions.

Dingwall is a classy player, but the return of Ollie Lawrence provides thrust and balances the back line. It will be an eighth start for the latter as a combination with Slade, who has never seemed indispensable to England coaches. This weekend, though, he is extremely important, primarily because of his critical role in a defining attempt to subdue Finn Russell.

With wicked irony, Slade would not have been as qualified to lead a blitz defence without the bitter disappointment of missing the World Cup last year. When Steve Borthwick overlooked him, selecting Joe Marchant instead, he returned to Exeter Chiefs. There, Omar Mouneimne was implementing a new approach in pre-season. Mouneimne, like recently appointed England defence coach Felix Jones, is a former colleague of Jacques Nienaber, and wanted Exeter to be so aggressive that forthcoming opponents would have to compromise their preparations.

“I coached with Jacques Nienaber at the Stormers in 2007, where it was a medium press and a smash in the tackle,” he explains eagerly. “Times have changed because attack has changed. It’s a golden era for attack. Attacks have never been so organised – ball in two hands, execution at speed, shape at the line, running exits, elaborate tap moves in the opposition 22. If you let teams get a rhythm on you, they can get lightning quick ball and keep it alive and terrorise you.

“We’ve been upping our line-speed [at Exeter] for a while and a lot of it has been around wanting [opponents] to rejig their week because we do so much homework on their attack. Every attack has a rhythm and something that they covet the most, whether they target things on the gain line or play with width and speed. Whatever they covet the most, we want to take away. And it’s not just speed and time you’re taking away, you’re cutting off option after option within a phase and making them rethink the entire time.”

Scrambling the senses is a chief aim of blitzing. And, to state the obvious, you must do a lot of running. Slade, a lithe athlete who zips up in the 13 channel, has snared three interceptions this season. One of them secured a thrilling victory over Munster in the Champions Cup at Sandy Park. These high-speed shuttles can also lead to tackles behind the gain line, as Slade pulled off on Nick Tompkins in the final minutes of England’s win over Wales. Even if carriers are funnelled back towards heavy traffic around rucks, the graft is worthwhile.

“You need to be massively fit,” Mouneimne says. “Your speed and work-rate off the ball has to be exceptional because you have to be ahead of the attack. If you don’t reload and reform ahead of the attack, you can’t shut them down. We worked hard on that and all the practicalities that go with take-off, retreat, take-off, retreat.

“Henry is the perfect man for the job because he’s meticulous, so he knows what the opposition will be bringing. He knows our shape perfectly and he’s physically perfect for it. You want to work hard for a few phases to get the ball back quicker. You blitz, read the play and push through.

“He’s got those intercepts because of his pre-emption. Tactically, he does his homework and knows what is coming. Technically, he’s so sound in how he moves.”

England must also stay on the same page. If individuals shoot up on their own, without team-mates reacting appropriately, Russell will pick holes. He did so in 2018, when Jonathan Joseph pressed up in front of Jonny May, and in 2023 when Owen Farrell went after him. Huw Jones was the beneficiary on both occasions, carving through the defensive line and into open space. The visitors will also need to readjust on occasion, because Russell is sure to tease them with his armoury of chips and kicks.

Slade has been praised by both Richard Wigglesworth and Kevin Sinfield as a problem-solver who has helped team-mates by leaning on his familiarity with a blitz system, perhaps talking through situations where it has felt unnatural. His expertise and intuition will underpin Jones’s strategy.

“It’s going to be a blockbuster because Scotland are a good team with cohesion, alignment and good culture,” Mouneimne  says. “Gregor [Townsend] has done a good job with them and they have a lot of X-factor players.

“We’ve obviously played Bath and previewed Finn – we’re going to play them again in the Champions Cup. It’s going to be exciting to see the way England try to cut his game plan in half and cut out his options, because he’s a visionary. He can kick-pass, play out the back, hit the front line and offload. He’ll keep England busy, and it’ll be a fascinating battle.”

Though this week’s narrative has revolved around how Scotland could be stifled, England will have to spend time in possession as well. Expect Slade and Lawrence to interchange in attack, and to make their side considerably sharper from first-phase situations.

Early on against Wales, from a five-metre scrum, Alex Mitchell scampered to the line with three flat options – Elliot Daly, Dingwall and Slade. A lack of deception allowed the defence to simply bunch tightly. Slade spilt the pass, yet would have been clobbered by George North anyway. He is no battering ram:

A different set-up has seen Slade step up to distribute from first-receiver, with Dingwall cutting a close angle and George Ford drifting out the back with the blindside wing:


Here, in Rome, Tommy Freeman is eventually released:

A week later, the same move led to Mason Grady’s yellow card for a deliberate knock-on:

However, it will be more potent with the more explosive, front-door threat of Lawrence. Even the most intricate attacks need momentum. Both Tommaso Menoncello and North have put England on the back foot with uncomplicated, direct running.

George Furbank, who replaces Freddie Steward, is a fine footballer at full-back and is more agile for when the blitz is beaten. But England now have scope to be more confrontational. Slade can give Lawrence room to trouble Scotland. In that respect, he will be one of Borthwick’s most influential men on both sides of the ball this weekend.