Hepher hails classy Slade
By Mark Stevens
Ali Hepher hailed the performance of Henry Slade as the Exeter Chiefs star put a testing few weeks behind him with a man-of-the-match display in his side’s 74-3 victory over Newcastle Falcons in the Gallagher Premiership.
The England centre scored two of the home side’s 12 tries as the reigning champions moved to within three points of leaders Bristol Bears in the Devon sunshine.
Jacques Vermeulen also bagged a double with Sam Skinner, Sam Simmonds, Alex Cuthbert, Dave Ewers, Stuart Hogg, Harvey Skinner, Tom O’Flaherty and Joe Simmonds, who also kicked seven conversions, completing the job for the hosts at Sandy Park.
It was, however, Slade - who has to contend with the disappointment of missing on selection for the British & Irish Lions, plus some controversy over his view on the Covid-19 pandemic this month - who led the way in front of a crowd of just over 3,000 people.
“It was good for him to go and play some rugby,” said Chiefs head coach Hepher. “His ability on the field is unquestionable. Look at how he performed - that shows how good a character he is - and he did his talking out on the field. The way he allows everyone to play around him is phenomenal. Sometimes he doesn’t always get the highlights he perhaps deserves, but people in rugby circles appreciate just what a quality player he is.”
Up against a much-changed Falcons side, the Chiefs dominated from start to finish, producing a performance that edged them ever closer to securing home advantage in the play-offs, which take place on June 19.
“It’s always tough to play against changed-up sides but we kept our heads on the task in hand and did the simple basics well. We didn’t throw any wild passes and kept our structure throughout,” added Hepher. “In a strange way, it has benefited us that we were knocked out of Europe as we have been able to fit some spare time into our plans.
“As I said, when you play against sides that have made lots of changes, it can be hard to get that rhythm and get things right. What was pleasing today was the guys stuck to task throughout. They exited well, they didn’t throw too much ball away, and that stayed disciplined throughout.
“All of that allowed to pick off what we knew would be a tough Falcons defence. They come at you with lots of line-speed and they really look to put the heat on you, but we responded to that with real skill levels in those outside channels and we were able to pick up the yards on the outside.”
With just two rounds of the regular season left, the Chiefs know they must make the most of their games against Northampton Saints (away) and Sale Sharks (home) to ensure they are fully firing for whoever they face in the last four of the competition.
“We’ve got some big weeks coming up, but that’s the way you want it at this stage of the season,” continued Hepher. “We want the guys tuned into these big games, not drifting or cruising. We want to be challenged and I’m sure that will be the case.
“What the guys are showing, however, is a real maturity to their game. They are not getting carried away, they are play hard, physical and intense rugby. We’ll need that because if you look at the table, the top four have been winning week in, week out.”