Slade targets huge fortnight in Europe
By Mark Stevens
Henry Slade insists there is real excitement amongst him and his team-mates as Exeter Chiefs look to advance in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
A draw and two losses from their opening three games in Pool Two looked as though the Devonians were well and truly out of contention at the halfway stage of the competition.However, a bonus point victory at Gloucester in their last outing, coupled with results elsewhere, mean Rob Baxter’s side remain in contention for possible qualification into the last eight.
Pool leaders Munster head the way with 12 points, but with Castres on nine points and the Chiefs and Gloucester both on eight apiece, there is no runaway leader amongst the quartet and these next two weeks of action will certainly be intriguing for all and sundry.
The Chiefs welcome defending French Top 14 champions Castres to Sandy Park this Sunday (1pm), before heading across the Irish Sea a week on Saturday to tackle Munster at a packed out Thomond Park (5:30pm).
England international Slade - who featured for the full 80 minutes in Exeter’s latest Gallagher Premiership victory over Bristol Bears at the weekend - says he needs little reminding of how important both games are for Chiefs.
“Beating Bristol at the weekend was the perfect response having lost up at Northampton,” said the 25-year-old. “However, it was bloody tough out there, especially in the second half.It was my first 80 minutes for a while, so I was starting to really feel it towards the end.”
Baxter’s side extended their lead at the top of the Premiership over defending champions Saracens to four points, thanks in the main to converted tries from Santiago Cordero and Sean Lonsdale.
“The boys really dug deep,” added Slade. “Even thought Bristol are at the other end of the table, they are still a quality side and they showed that out there today. They really took it to us, but we stuck in there and ground out what was a hard-fought win in the end.
“What I liked about our performance was that we stayed positive, especially when things didn’t always go our way. We didn’t panic, we just stuck to our guns, and it was just what we needed going into what will be a big two weeks in Europe.”
Having collected their first win in this season’s Champions Cup with a tough win up at Gloucester, the Chiefs now have to replicate it against a Castres side, who won their earlier meeting at the Stade Pierre Fabre 29-25 back in October.
“The last round of fixtures was good for us,” continued Slade.“We beat Gloucester and Castres won at home to Munster, so it’s thrown it all open again. Whereas initially it didn’t look good for us, all of a sudden we’re very much alive in the competition and as a group we’re really excited about these next two weeks.
“Castres, we know, will be tough, but we’ve given ourselves a genuine shout of qualification. Now, we have to fight for it as much as we can.”
Slade believes last weekend’s derby tussle with the Bears was the perfect warm-up fixture for the Chiefs, allowing them to get stuck into gritty opponents.
“It was a good game to get us ready again for Europe,” said the Exeter playmaker. “It was a hard scuffle and they pushed us right to the wire. As a team, though, we’re really pleased to have got the result.Now, we’ve got a few weeks away from the Premiership, so we’ve just got to focus all our attentions on these next two games and see where it takes us.”