Exeter Chiefs Young Guns – Real Deal Starlets or Overhyped Youngsters?

With the recent Six Nations tournament still fresh in the minds, which saw the rise to prominence of Exeter Chief’s Cornish-born young winger Jack Nowell. I wanted to take the opportunity to look at Exeter’s top rated youngsters and ask the question, will they be good enough for England one day?

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Exeter Chiefs are no strangers to having players in the youth ranks of the England set up with the three hottest prospects, aside from Jack Nowell, being Henry Slade, Sam Hill and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Henry Slade – Fly-Half – 21 years old

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Henry Slade first really came to my attention during England’s junior world championship final against Wales where England won 23-15. Henry Slade kicked both conversions and three penalties. Although his kicking game that day was strong enough to draw some plaudits it was Slade’s all round game that caught my eye. Slade played with comfort and confidence with the ball in hand and really seemed at his best when looking to open up gaps in the Welsh defence with passes, kicks and little chips beyond the defence. This was a very accomplished performance but the junior world championships is a far cry from the Aviva Premiership let alone the England Elite playing squad.

Henry Slade has been featuring on a regular basis for Exeter not only in the LV Cup and  Aviva Premiership but he racked up some very valuable game time in the Heineken cup this season too. There have been times where Slade has shown his age and inexperience with poor decision making skills at times. Often choosing to kick on at wrong times and on many occasions misjudge the distance of his kicks.

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However these were common place in early outings for Exeter and Slade seems to have honed his craft rather quickly, as was necessary if Exeter were to maintain a chase of European rugby next season. Slade’s only let down of late, in my opinion, has been his mercurial kicking form. This, for me, is not the biggest issue as the temperament and pressure handling skills for kicking come with time and experience.

Verdict: Henry Slade will continue to grow and improve with Exeter Chiefs, next season I expect him to become Exeter’s starting Fly-Half for more than half of their games. Slade will be good enough for England and if injuries occur to any of the core fly-halves he could be in with a back up spot for next years world cup.

Sam Hill – Outside centre – 20 years old

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Sam Hill is one of the most talked about youth prospects in Rugby circles, widely expected to be an England world beater in the future but can he live up to that potential?

In a word, yes. Hill is at the perfect place to have his talent nurtured. Exeter Chiefs are very good at gradually integrating their youth players and frankly the ones that have what it takes do eventually catch hold of that and it can be very difficult to prise that starting jersey from their fingers.

Sam Hill also featured in the junior world championship final along with Henry Slade where he scored England’s second try of the game in a match where all England’s points were scored by Exeter players. He is often described ferocious and powerful. Which is exactly the mould that England’s outside centres are arriving in right now.

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Hill runs fantastic lines, offers on the shoulder support and doesn’t shy away from a tackle. He has a huge amount to offer but it needs to be said that he still isn’t the finished product. Exeter need to make sure he isn’t rushed into the first team.

Sam Hill has featured a lot this season and doesn’t look out of place in the Premiership, which subsequently earned him an England Saxons call up and a Saxons debut against the Irish Wolfhounds which was a losing debut for young Hill. As an England under 20 Hill was probably fairly used to results going his way so the bitter taste of international defeat could prove to be a very good learning experience.

Verdict – Sam Hill will be an England feature at some stage in his career. However, with the England midfield crop currently being very strong it could take a few years before he breaks into the England set up. I expect Hill to miss out on the next world cup as well as the next couple of Six nations tournaments. I do however expect him to be an outside shout for a few of the autumn and summer tests over the next few seasons before eventually breaking into the highly competitive centre positions.

Luke Cowan-Dickie – Hooker – 20 years old

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There is a bit of debate as to whether Luke Cowan-Dickie is a Hooker or Prop. I think it’s imperative that we quash the idea of him playing prop. There is no call for versatility these days and Exeter along with England need specialists for positions. Cowan-Dickie is a competent hooker, he has been tipped for greatness by all-blacks legend Sean Fitzpatrick which is quite a strong endorsement.

Cowan-Dickie like Slade and Hill has featured in the first team this season in a position hampered by injury. Luke is a very agile and mobile hooker which is becoming common place in modern rugby. He has soft hands and competes well at the breakdown. However, Cowan-Dickie’s biggest let down at the moment is his line-out throwing which is far too hit and miss for a top flight side. If Cowan-Dickie can gain consistency at the line-out he will regularly compete with the top echelon of hookers at Exeter. Although Cowan-Dickie is competent enough in the scrum he needs more game time and more experience against the best in the league and in Europe before we can really tip him for England.

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The biggest thing in Luke Cowan-Dickie’s favour right  now is the fact that the selection pool for England hookers is rather shallow right now. With Dylan Hartley currently with a stranglehold on the jersey and Tom Youngs the main name waiting in the wings there is definitely scope to earn a few caps.

Verdict – Luke Cowan-Dickie needs to really hone his skills at the set piece before sticking a hand up for England and consistency at the line out is where he needs to start. We will see Cowan-Dickie feature for England in the next 2 years. However, this will most likely be due to injuries or a lack of options in his positions. Cowan-Dickie can reach the heights that Sean Fitzpatrick has suggested but he needs much more game time and some specialist work.

Overall it’s safe to say these youngsters have what it takes for an England call up in some form or another but in my opinion the most important part is staying with Exeter Chiefs where they will be looked after and get game time. The worst thing that could happen to each of these players much like a lot of wasted English talent, would be to join one of the top four and sit on the bench week in week out.

The future of England is definitely an exciting one and if these three players are anything to go by then the future for Exeter is also looking pretty good.

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