Twickenham torment has fuelled the Chiefs
By Mark Stevens
Henry Slade knows better than most what game day at Twickenham is all about.
Having experienced it on numerous occasions with both club and country, the Exeter Chiefs playmaker will stroll into the home of English Rugby again this Saturday with his eyes fixed firmly on the big prize.
With the Chiefs back for a fourth successive appearance in the Gallagher Premiership Final, it’s old adversaries Saracens who provide the sizeable obstacle Slade and his team-mates must overcome to claim a second league crown.
Like Slade, the Londoners are no stranger to the grand occasion, a point emphasised just a few weeks ago when they lifted the Heineken Champions Cup for the third time with victory against Leinster at St James’ Park.
That success followed their triumph in last season’s Premiership final where, for the second time in three years, they picked off the Chiefs to win the domestic title for the fourth time.
First time round in 2016, many associated with the Chiefs would concede it was an achievement in itself to get to the end of season showpiece, such was the strides the Devon club had made since their promotion into the top flight back in 2010.
A year later, Rob Baxter’s side were back at HQ again, this time having beaten Saracens in a dramatic semi-final, before seeing off Wasps in extra-time to secure their first-ever Premiership gong.
That success took the Chiefs into new and unchartered territory, but as defending champions they lapped up the extra pressure and 12 months down the line they were making the return trip again to TW2 for another final day battle with Mark McCall’s troops.
On a baking hot day in the capital, Baxter’s side put up a decent enough fight, but it was the street-smart Sarries, who eventually ruled the roost, running out 27-10 victors thanks in the main to a brace from Chris Wyles and further touchdowns from Billy Vunipola and Nathan Earle.
As the despondent Chiefs trooped back inside the confines of the national stadium, tears flowing as freely as the nearby River Thames, the desolate scenes within the home changing rooms were there for all to see.
Slade admits it was a ‘dark place’ for him and his team-mates. Having experienced the high of victory the previous year, now the Chiefs were having to soak up the disappointment of another Twickenham defeat.
“I remember a few of us boys sat down after the game last year and told ourselves we never wanted to feel like that again,” said Slade. “That experience a couple of year ago of winning the league was probably the best rugby experience I’ve ever had.
“To do that and get success with some of your best mates is such a good feeling and the days that follow on after that celebrating are just so good.
“This year we’ve been doing everything we can to make sure we don’t feel like we did last year. Now, we’ve got one more game at the weekend to do that.
“Whatever it is that spurs you on, we’ve got to use that to the best we can this weekend because we know what the feeling is having the reverse result like we had last year.”
Certainly, the Chiefs have gone about their business impressively so far this season, booking their semi-final place in record-breaking time, before then seeing off Northampton Saints comprehensively last weekend to secure their passage back to the final.
“I think over the last couple of years we’ve had a bit of a shift in our mindset,” added Slade. “If we’re honest, we were sort of just pleased to be in that first final. We then had a taste of winning it the year after and then having the complete disappointment of being absolutely gutted at losing last year.
“I think it shows the way the shift in mindset amongst the boys and coaches, and probably the fans as well, is what we expect of ourselves. We expect a lot more all the time now and if we can go one better this year then that would obviously be a massive thing for us.
As one of the more recognisable names within Chiefs squad, Slade is quick to pay tribute to those around him and the role that have played in ensuring the club once again finished the regular season as top dogs.
“It’s been way more than just the boys taking the field at the weekend,” he explained. “We’ve virtually used our whole squad this year and I think that shows how strong our whole squad is.
“I mean boys get injured, boys are away on international duty, or others just need a rest at times, whichever guys gets called in, they step up and it’s seamless, there is no drop off.
“That’s credit to the coaches for the work they do and the recruitment they don, but also an awesome effort from all of the boys this year to get us where we are.
“Even if boys haven’t been playing that much, the work they’ve being doing in training, prepping the side, playing at the weekend for games has been top class and I know the boys at the weekend can’t thank them enough.”