Well, to be honest I can probably answer my own titular question – it will be after this World Cup. Slade is a player of such quality that his time will come – that is inevitable.
The question is, why has he been included in this World Cup squad only to be kept on ice? When Jonathan Joseph was ruled out with an injury, Slade was the most obvious replacement because he is the only other centre in the England squad with an ounce of creativity in his bones.
Slade has been familiar to fans in Devon for some time now. And even to the sporadic Aviva Premiership viewer, he has been on the radar for at least a season and a half. Why has it taken this long for him to get into the squad? And now he is here, why the hell is he not being picked?
Sam Roberts wrote a brilliant piece yesterday about how Stuart Lancaster and his coaches rely too much on science when they pick their teams and devise their game-plans, and their fear of picking Slade for the Wales game certainly confirmed that.
Indeed, the fact that it has taken him so long to win his first England cap is indicative of a wider selection trend in this England coaching group: ‘selection by numbers’. The likes of Twelvetrees, Burrell and even Joel Tomkins (remember him?) will all hit their lines, make their tackles and produce some excellent data to be analysed afterwards. But will they produce that moment of difference that only players of true vision and skill can?
Those mentioned above are all fine athletes and you certainly need physical robustness in your backline these days. But when New Zealand see a talent like Malakai Fekitoa or Nehe Milner-Skudder, they fast-track them straight into the team. They know the best way for a player to convert his potential is to play on the biggest stage. Learn by doing. Sure, there will be mistakes, but they will be outweighed by the benefit to the team in the long-run.
England seem so crippled by this fear of mistakes that they refuse to bet the house on a player of genuine talent like Slade. They have wasted caps on safer options and painted themselves into a corner where they have several hard-working players with handfuls of caps each, but were forced to field a back-line against Wales without a single midfield player that could unlock a defence.
Fekitoa and Milner-Skudder have far fewer caps for the Highlanders and Hurricanes respectively than Slade does for Exeter. Even South Africa, a nation hardly known for their progressive selections, spotted Jesse Kriel and saw fit to throw him into their team after just a single season of top level rugby.
The back three is currently the best part of this England team – Watson, May and Brown are all in insatiable form. How often did they get the ball from a pass against Wales? I’m struggling to remember many opportunities they had that weren’t kick returns, other than May’s try that was a result of some sneaky rucking and good vision from Ben Youngs.
To be clear, I have a lot of respect for Lancaster, Farrell and Rowntree and what they have done for the England side since the shambles that was 2011. No-one wants a return to those days. But you can bang on about culture all you want – if you can’t get selection right, you are going to come in for criticism as an international coach. I do not think it is unjust to question whether they have reached their limit as a coaching group.
A final thought – what influence, if any, does Mike Catt have at these selection meetings? Catt was a player of rare vision, who had little trouble unlocking a defence with the right kick or pass. A player not unlike Henry Slade. Surely he cannot be happy to see England continually pick such one-dimensional back-lines?
If Jonathan Joseph is not fit to play Australia, then Henry Slade simply has to come into the team. England were not awful against Wales, and wholesale changes are not necessary (and almost certainly won’t be made). They just lacked a player that could provide something a bit different. Slade is that man; his time is now.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images