Inside Line: How Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade can lead England this Six Nations

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Luke Cowan-Dickie - CameraSport via Getty Images
Luke Cowan-Dickie - CameraSport via Getty Images

It was a group excursion to Devon for four of England’s senior coaches on Saturday evening, and Exeter Chiefs made it a worthwhile work trip.

Eddie Jones, Matt Proudfoot, Richard Cockerill and Martin Gleeson were all in the stands to watch the hosts dismantle Glasgow Warriors. With England’s squad for the Six Nations on Tuesday due to be confirmed on Tuesday, a number of Chiefs caught the eye.

Tom O’Flaherty, the bustling wing, bagged a hat-trick. Back-rower Dave Ewers marked his 200th club appearance with a typically monumental display, fittingly completing the rout. Joe Simmonds conducted matters neatly from fly-half.

None of that trio could be begrudged a place, but others are more likely to be among Jones’ party this week. Of those, Sam Simmonds scored twice and the effervescent Jack Nowell presented a compelling case for an England recall.

The latter slipped through tackles all game and accelerated through the middle to finish Exeter’s seventh try, but Nowell’s clever kicking will have been particularly rewarding for the England brains trust to see. On January 1, Nowell nudged this cute grubber into the space vacated by Bristol Bears full-back Charles Piutau. O’Flaherty scored following Stuart Hogg’s offload:

This weekend, Nowell’s accuracy and decision-making enhanced Exeter’s options in kicking exchanges. He begins this second-half passage as the primary chaser of Jack Maunder’s box-kick. Take note of Luke Cowan-Dickie out wide as well:

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Nowell pressurises Glasgow’s back-field and tackles Sebastián Cancelliere, allowing Patrick Schickerling to pounce for a jackal steal. Having bounced to his feet, Nowell then dinks into space in behind his opponents. He follows up for a second tackle in quick succession on Cancelliere, with Cowan-Dickie then joining in. Perhaps fortunate to avoid conceding a penalty for going off their feet, Exeter earn a turnover:

Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade together personified how Exeter married uncompromising forward play with slick ball movement against Glasgow. Back after missing the loss to Harlequins through illness, Cowan-Dickie was integral to an increasingly effective set-piece operation. Slade, meanwhile, pulled the strings for Exeter’s potent backline.

The pair are shoo-ins for England’s Six Nations squad, having been granted greater responsibility by Jones in the autumn. Cowan-Dickie had been mooted to become an official vice-captain before being ruled out of that campaign by an ankle injury. Slade then assumed the job for the 27-26 win over South Africa. He seemed to thrive.

“Henry and Luke have got more senior roles within the England set-up, and you can tell,” said Rob Baxter after a statement victory for Exeter. “They’re growing up as people, they’re growing up as men and they’re talking more around the group.

“They are certainly driving forces for us. They were the two guys who were our on-field captains today. Luke started and then [the captaincy] moved on to Sladey. They’re just helping us with the direction we want to head in.”

We will start with Slade. His distribution, which contributed to each of O’Flaherty’s three tries as well as that of Nowell, is an invaluable tool for England as they bid to sharpen their attacking repertoire. Indeed, Exeter ran the same pattern that England used in November, with Slade standing flat at first-receiver.

This play laid on O’Flaherty’s first. Watch how Slade’s poise manipulates the Glasgow defence on the back of a rock-solid scrum:

Here is the critical point. Ian Whitten runs a convincing short angle and, although Sam Johnson drifts off, his wing Cole Forbes bites in:

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Johnson and Forbes collide, so when Slade feeds Joe Simmonds with a pull-back, the Chiefs fly-half can isolate Josh McKay and release O’Flaherty:

Deep into the second half, Nowell tears through from the same move:

Slade adopts the same role, but unfurls another trick to add on a further layer of deception. He feigns to strike a grubber, which causes hesitation among the beleaguered Glasgow defenders.

Kyle Steyn, in the outside centre channel, bites in to make the Warriors line dangerously narrow. This gives Nowell an inviting gap…

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…and Harvey Skinner can set up the break following Slade’s pass behind Tom Hendrickson:

Unless Jones turns back to Owen Farrell, a leap of faith given his skipper’s lack of recent action, or Gleeson remodels the attack, Slade will surely retain this role for England’s strike-moves in the Six Nations.

Marcus Smith is likely to hang deeper, as Joe Simmonds does when Exeter adopt this shape. Manu Tuilagi is an ideal line-runner, but Joe Marchant, Dan Kelly, Ollie Lawrence or even the uncapped Luke Northmore would suit that job as well.

Slade has not always managed to assert himself at Test level as influentially as he has done for Exeter, but November represented something of a breakthrough. Such is his variety of skills that the England coaches would do well to take heed of how Chiefs use their centre’s left foot as well.

Take this scrum on their own 10-metre line – a prime opportunity to take advantage of the 50:22 law if a team has left- and right-footed kicking options. Joe Simmonds and Slade line up on opposite sides of the scrum…

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…before Jack Maunder heads towards the near touchline. The aim is to look as though the attack will come through Joe Simmonds. However, Sam Simmonds picks from the base and bolts in the opposite direction.

Steyn must push up flat on the far wing opposite Hogg and O’Flaherty, leaving space over his shoulder. Slade fades behind Whitten…

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…and takes Sam Simmonds’ pass to drive the ball towards empty grass in pursuit of a 50:22. On this occasion, McKay covers well and the bounce is kind to him:

Later, Chiefs attempt another trick. Jack Maunder is coiled at the tail of a ruck caterpillar ready to box-kick…

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…but scrum-half swivels and throws a pass that opens up the field for Slade. Although the ball is caught by Ross Thompson…

…a coordinated Exeter chase immediately cuts down Glasgow’s options and consolidates Exeter’s field position:

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Slade’s ambitious touch-finders proved to be a weapon from penalties as well, continually allowing his forwards to march up-field.

From one such kick arrived Sam Simmonds’ first try, which owed to Cowan-Dickie’s superb throw. Despite winning all three November fixtures against Tonga, Australia and the Springboks, England head into the Six Nations knowing that their scrum and lineout must improve. Skilful and tenacious, Cowan-Dickie will aid that effort.

It was testament to Sam Skinner and Cowan-Dickie that Exeter’s lineout thrived in the absence of both Jonny Gray and Jonny Hill. Here, starting a six-man set-up between Sean Lonsdale and Dave Ewers, Skinner creates space cleverly to avoid Kiran McDonald and Scott Cummings, Glasgow’s two principle defensive jumpers.

He sneaks around Ewers...

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...who dummies lifting Skinner before spinning to hoist Lonsdale. Cowan-Dickie’s throw hits its mark, lobbing McDonald…

…and a peeling drive carries Sam Simmonds over:

Cowan-Dickie was a focal point of Exeter’s clinical work at close-range. Watch his contribution to Sam Simmonds’ second try. Not only does he tap the penalty and swing a pass to his teammate. He also clatters into the ensuing melee to force Simmonds over the whitewash:

A customary pushover try arrived later. Cowan-Dickie’s wriggling finish at the tail is streetwise:

Sheer doggedness is one of Cowan-Dickie’s most valuable traits. In the 18-15 win over Saracens on December 4, in which he captained Exeter, his defiant and opportunistic counter-rucking…

…led to the breakdown penalty from which Bill Vunipola conceded 20 metres for dissent:

That contribution encapsulated Cowan-Dickie’s ferocity. Put simply, he must be deeply unpleasant to play against, which makes him primed to be an important figure for England over the upcoming two months and beyond.

Match images courtesy of BT Sport

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