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Back in May 2017 Henry Slade confirmed his place as a Devon legend.
With two minutes to go Exeter Chiefs were on their way to a Premiership semi-final loss to bitter rivals Saracens. After dominating the scrum Exeter won a penalty. Slade was handed the ball and his left foot took Exeter from well in their own half to the Saracen five-yard line. The line out was formed and the clock was now in the red. A minute later Sam Simmonds was over the line and Exeter had miraculously made it into the final. If it wasn’t for that wonder-kick from Slade Exeter would not have won their first and only Premiership title.
But asked if he ever thinks about what would have happened if that kick had not been that kick, Slade shrugs.
“It happened and we did it, so I’ve not really given it any thought,” he says. “We just want to do it again.”
For Slade, who has since that 2017 final extra-time victory against Wasps established himself as one of the world’s best centres, it’s not about looking back. It’s about today. Exeter’s fifth semi-final and, for him and his teammates, working towards a fifth straight Premiership final.
The prospect of a European and domestic double over the next two weeks may be in the back of his mind but it will stay there until victory over a resurgent Bath is accomplished at Sandy Park this afternoon.
“We can’t be worrying too much about what’s in too far in the future because we’ve got a massive game this weekend,” he says. “We’ve got to be right on it mentally for that. If we’re worrying too much about what’s going on next week, we’re going to come unstuck.
“So, in the back of our minds, we know there’s a massive period coming up for the club, we’re definitely not looking further ahead than this weekend because Bath are a top side and it’s gonna be a big challenge.”
As for the opposition, Slade is under no illusion that this is the same Bath side that Exeter hammered 57-20 at the last Sandy Park home game before lockdown.
“Bath have been a bit on fire since the restart,” he says. “They’ve got threats all over, so we have to be right on it. But I’m just excited to see what happens because we’ve been waiting a long time waiting for these playoffs and the end of the season.”
As for the lack of 15,000 home fans screaming their Chiefs on, Slade doesn’t mince his words.
“It’s pretty crap not having a crowd here,” he says. “A sold-out semi-final here is an unbelievable atmosphere.”
But how much does the lack of the crowd take away from the home advantage. Is it just two teams on a patch of grass with flags in the corner now?
“Yeah, that may be the approach of people who aren’t at home. We like being at home,” says Slade in an ominous warning to Saturday’s visitors.
Watson explains how lockdown transformed Bath
For Bath and England’s Anthony Watson the 15,000 empty seats at Exeter Chiefs’ Sandy Park this afternoon could be make all the difference as he chases his first title with the blue, black and white.
“Obviously, we’d all like to see the fans, our friends and family back at games again, and hopefully we will soon,” says Bath’s fullback. “But it’s not all bad news this weekend.”
When asked if that means it takes away at least some of Exeter’s home advantage he can’t help but burst into laughter.
“Ha, that’s right. It’s not all bad as I say.”
There’s no doubt Watson and his teammates are up for this one. They have been a different team since the season resumed after lockdown, and with a big pack and silky back line of their own they are also a strong match for Chiefs in every department. Lockdown worked for Bath.
“I think lockdown has definitely helped us,” says Watson. “I think that a lot of the boys focused throughout lockdown onto what they wanted to get out of rugby and potentially how many opportunities that we’d missed through whatever reason prior to lockdown. We’ve really made the most of those opportunities on the back of lockdown.”
The last time Bath got close to lifting the Premiership title was five years ago, when a first-half blitz from Saracens laid the foundations for Bath’s 28-16 demise that day. Watson was there and, now he’s so close to getting back to Twickenham with his club, he couldn’t be more desperate to bring some silverware back to The Rec.
“This is why everyone across the Premiership plays, to be able to put yourselves in a position to play in the semi-finals and hopefully the final,” says Watson.
“I am massively excited. It has been no secret that I am desperate to win something with the club.
“On Saturday we have the opportunity to get one step closer. I am putting all of my energy into trying to put out the best performance I can for the team.”