Sleightholme issues a Ricoh reminder of Saints' bright future
At the Ricoh Arena last Saturday, Saints supporters got a glimpse of the future - and it was bright.
Boss Chris Boyd turned to youth to fill gaps in his backline, with injured duo George Furbank and Matt Proctor replaced in the starting 15 by Tommy Freeman and Ollie Sleightholme.
Sleightholme is just 20 years old and Freeman doesn’t reach that age until next month.
But their performances belied their inexperience as they both stood up to be counted, especially during the second half when Saints were completely on the back foot.
Freeman continually intervened to snuff out danger, while Sleightholme showed few signs of rust after spending more than a year on the sidelines prior to his comeback in Coventry.
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Saints, who had raced into a 22-0 lead, eventually saw the game out to secure a 22-17 success, their third Gallagher Premiership win on the spin.
And Sleightholme was left to reflect on a job well done as his return ended in delight.
“It was very strange to be back playing rugby and not just being stuck in the gym,” he said.
“It was a bit weird but I’m really happy to be back out there.
“I didn’t feel too bad while playing.
“My legs were pretty shot but I felt pretty good and a lot of that comes from the training we do here - it’s very high intensity and it prepares us as much as possible.
“It was literally the first game I’d played for 12 months.”
Saints have found themselves a little light on the wings in recent years, with players such as Ahsee Tuala and Proctor switching from their traditional roles to move out wide.
But Sleightholme offers a real option now and in the years to come, with his progress stark.
Only injuries have stood in his way since the start of 2020.
He explained: “In the London Irish game last January I got concussed and went off just before half-time.
“I then had two weeks coming back from that and played an England Under-20s game in Scotland and I tore my hamstring in that game.
“That was the last game I’d played before last Saturday.”
Sleightholme didn’t have to experience Saints’ disastrous 2020, only featuring in one of the 17 defeats they suffered during the 23 matches in the calendar year.
The 12-month period had started with wins against Wasps, Benetton and, most notably, Lyon, where Sleightholme started.
But Saints fell off a cliff with defeat at London Irish at the end of January and that was to be Sleightholme’s final Saints match of 2020.
He was due to return to action in last season’s final-day game at Gloucester but that was forfeited due to Covid-19 cases at Sale, who Saints had faced just a few days earlier.
And he said: “It’s more frustrating now looking back on it than it was at the time.
“I thought it would just be one game forfeited and I would get a chance at the start of the new season but a couple of weeks after that I injured my ankle in training.”
So how tough was it to stay positive during such a long road back to action?
“I’ve been doing everything I can do get myself back as quickly as possible and if you set yourself targets, it gives you that timeline you need to keep pushing on,” Sleightholme said.
“I’ve also been doing a bit of work with a company my dad (former Saints and England wing Jon Sleightholme) is involved with and trying to create a bigger LinkedIn network.
“I’ve been asking guys who work at the company what they do and things like that.
“It’s always good to have your foot in the door in case anything does happen to you and you need to move away from the game as easily as possible.”
But Sleightholme was back in the matchday environment with a bang last weekend, and now he is keen to kick on.
He said: “I’m just keeping my head down and the other stuff will sort itself out."