Henry Slade, Tommy Freeman, Alfie Barbeary - A trio that should be on Steve Bortwick’s Six Nations radar

After missing out on World Cup selection, Henry Slade has certainly proved his point for Exeter so far this season

After missing out on selection for the Rugby World Cup, Henry Slade has been determined to end 2023 with a bang.

The versatile Exeter Chiefs back has been making headlines for his exceptional performances and having been a key figure in the club’s recent successes in Europe against Toulon and Munster, Slade’s contributions have been nothing short of remarkable.

Meanwhile, other English teams like the Northampton Saints and Bath have also shown promising performances in the Champions Cup with standout players such as Tommy Freeman and Alfie Barbeary catching the eye with the Six Nations coming into view.

Henry Slade: A class act for Exeter Chiefs 

Slade’s consistency for the Exeter Chiefs this season has been outstanding. His versatility allows him to confidently occupy different positions in the backline and having been left at home by Steve Borthwick for the World Cup, he has responded by being instrumental in the Chiefs’ successes this term.

His attacking flair, impeccable playmaking skills and composure under pressure have made him a pivotal figure in Exeter’s resurgence.

Chiefs clinched a fine 32-24 triumph over monster powerhouses Munster in a riveting game at Sandy Park on Sunday.

Exeter boss Rob Baxter said post-match: “As the pressure really came on, we came up with a couple of moments.

“It [Exeter’s third try] comes from us exiting well, we win the contestable kick-off. Stu [Townsend] takes a good decision to create more pressure with a second quick kick and then it’s the bounce of a ball.

“We created pressure with the bounce of the ball, perhaps making things work and that’s what you have to do.”

Slade added the extras to Jack Dunne’s opportunistic try to give Exeter the lead and as Munster honed in on their attack in the final few minutes, Slade ultimately shone through as he intercepted to score the bonus-point try.

“He’s training and playing like a young man,” Baxter said of Slade. “I can’t ask any more of him. He’s playing in the way he played to get an international cap. You can just tell he’s a big game player.”

By donning the fly-half, inside centre or fullback roles, Slade consistently demonstrates his versatility and has surely caught the attention of England boss Borthwick with the Six Nations on the horizon.

Slade is renowned for his vision, he reads defences with ease, distributing pinpoint passes that create scoring opportunities.

Moreover, his kicking game, which includes precise kicks into space and accurate goal-kicking, adds another dimension to the Chiefs’ attack and can be a weapon for England going forward.

Slade also proves his mettle in defence, showcasing a solid tackling technique and positional awareness.

Premiership clubs thrive on Europe’s biggest stage with Northampton and Bath making their mark

While Exeter Chiefs have enjoyed the spotlight, other English teams like Northampton Saints and Bath have also made significant strides in the Champions Cup.

The Saints certainly look like they have evolved this season and whilst the evergreen Courtney Lawes continues to lead by example with some devastating performances, the likes of Tommy Freeman have also been at the heart of everything that has been good about Northampton.

Similarly to Slade, Freeman’s ability to be a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ is benefitting Northampton and under the tutelage of Sam Vesty, the 22-year-old has impressed at centre with his skilful running, vision and try-scoring ability.

With his dynamic performances, Freeman has certainly put his hand up for possible England selection. 

With Joe Marchant now ineligible for England after making the move to Stade Francais, it looks like Freeman may be a suitable option to replace the ex-Harlequin who was a key component in Borthwick’s side at the World Cup.

Northampton boss Phil Dowson agrees that Freeman has impressed many: “Tommy played a bit of centre when he was younger, he’s obviously played some full-back for us.

“He’d sort of shown an interest in getting into that 13 slot. I mean he’s more than capable, he’s such a talented player in terms of how he identifies space and physical attributes.

“Whenever you’re talking about international rugby it’s going to be competitive, but one thing you know, what Tommy is doing currently, is putting his hand up to be capable of playing the highest level in that position.”

With Saints concluding the first block of Champions Cup fixtures by topping Pool 3 after two wins from two, Bath are also unbeaten in Pool 2 with Johann van Graan’s side continuing their strong start to the season.

And a key cog in the Blue, Black and White’s arsenal has been exciting young talents like Alfie Barbeary. Knee and hamstring injuries have restricted his playing time over the last year or so but this season, he has made a significant impact, displaying his physicality, power, and quick reflexes.

Barbeary’s ability to also adapt to different positions, whether at hooker or in the back row, showcases his versatility.

But with players such as Ben Earl, Zach Mercer and Tom Curry all currently on the treatment table and with Billy Vunipola in the twilight of his international career, perhaps the back row is where we may see Barbeary operate for England.

Added to this, his ball-carrying could also be crucial as it is something England have fallen short on in recent times.

Barbeary said in an interview with the Guardian: “There are aspirations to play for England. It has been a childhood dream of mine but realistically I have to focus on playing each week and building up minutes, getting confidence

“Steve Borthwick and I have had a brief conversation - it was really just about sticking at it. I’ve got to put in the performances to be selected.”

The consistent displays of Freeman and Barbeary suggest that they may well be in contention for England’s Six Nations squad.

Elsewhere, it’s hard not to mention Marcus Smith’s performances in the Champions Cup for Harlequins.

In light of Owen Farrell declaring that he will take a break from international rugby, many feel it is now down to Smith and Sale’s George Ford to battle it out for the England No.10 shirt.

And you could argue Smith may have nudged himself to the top of the pecking order, especially after his dazzling display in Harlequins' win away at Racing 92 in Round 1 of the Champions Cup.

Whether an extended Test run at 10 is now the path Borthwick will choose to go down with Smith, only time will tell but the 24-year-old, who operated at full-back during the World Cup, has certainly made his case to be England’s first choice fly-half during the Six Nations.