With a century of Test caps, a history of honest graft and a willingness to discuss the biggest mistake of his life, James Slipper is a valuable role model for this young Wallabies side. This feature first appeared in Rugby World in August
THE LOOSEHEAD reflects on it now as fuel for an incredible career revival, but there’s no avoiding the unravelling that occurred in 2018 when Wallaby James Slipper was stood down from rugby after testing positive for cocaine.
“It was a period of my life, mate, that I am going to have to live with now,” he begins. When the then-Reds prop was handed a two-month ban, he revealed via social media that he’d been suffering with depression for a year. He had a ragged history with injury and had also received gut-punch news of serious illness in his family. He knows that he did wrong, but also wants to be open.
“I really struggled. It was a really tough time, not just for me but my family as well. One thing I can say is I learnt a lot from that and truly believe I’m a better person for going through such a hard period.
“If I reflect on it now, I try to look at it as a positive. At the time the walls were caving in and there was a period where I wanted to give the game away, but I just stuck to myself and got through it.
“I had a lot of family around me and my close mates, who helped me get through that time. And I look back at that period of my life like a springboard into the back-end of my career where I feel I’m playing good rugby. I’m really enjoying my rugby and whenever I do I play the best footie. But it’s a part of my career I won’t shy away from.
“And probably the biggest thing I enjoy now in my career is being around the young players. There’s nothing better than giving advice to a younger player who has asked for advice. Whether on the field or off the field, it doesn’t really bother me, I just get a kick out of the fact a young player wants to be better.
“I feel like for Australian rugby, we need more players like that because we want to win some trophies mate, and if we’ve got young players who are really hungry to get better then that’s what we need. And as an old player, who’s been around for ten years, I kinda run off that enthusiasm that the young boys have!
“I’m not actually that old, but I do enjoy seeing young guys get an opportunity at Test level and Super Rugby level.”
Having seen the fall from afar, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Slipper, 32, was over as a Test concern. Even before his very public transgression, the prop hadn’t featured for the Wallabies since 2016. But he got a change of scenery, refreshed by a move to the Brumbies, to a younger squad with new dynamics. Then, in 2019, he was brought back into the green and gold fold for a biggie.
Slipper says that coming back for a match with the All Blacks “hit me for six”. But it started him on the path to becoming an important senior figure for his country, a steady influence rolling past 100 caps for the Wallabies.
His first emotion was gratitude – when he joined the Brumbies, he tells us he was thankful “just to play rugby… at any level”. He wanted to rebuild bridges, reinstate trust and win over some supporters and loved ones again. He wanted to atone.
At that point, hitting the Test century was not even a fantasyland pipe dream. So when he was in national gold again for the build-up to the 2019 World Cup, he promised himself he’d cherish every match. And they just kept totting up. That first game back, a 35-17 loss to the Boks, was cap number 87. Number 100 came against the All Blacks, in Brisbane.
The man known to some as ‘Slip’ has his views on what his game is all about today. And we’ll get to that. But others could throw in from afar that the key to longevity for any front-rower is learning not just from the good times but especially from the rib-popping, harsh times. It is true that some prodigies are mashing fellow props right from the first “engage” but there are more than a few veterans around who have harnessed the power of previous hidings. Slipper recalls all too well his own rough debut.
“Our scrum was getting murdered by the English all night,” Slipper says, remembering the call for him to come off the bench for cap number one, in Perth. “Back then there was only one prop on the bench, so I covered both.
“They put me on in a five-metre scrum. It collapses, our tighthead gets sent off and after coming on at loosehead I’ve had to move over to tighthead and I’m hanging on for dear life. They ended up getting a penalty try.
“That was my baptism of fire against the English pack. There were some big players out there playing for England, so it was one of the proudest moments of my life but it was also one of the scariest moments of my life as well!
“I don’t know if there was one particular game (where it all clicked) but in that first year, in 2010, I felt like I grew as the year went on. Because I only had three Super Rugby games to my name when I made that debut (just one start). So I had no chance at all – I was thrown in the deep end. But I ended that year with 14 Tests to my name. That year we knocked off the All Blacks in Hong Kong and that was a game that I really enjoyed. I scrummed well and grew over the year.”
James Slipper is heading into yet another Rugby Championship. How does one survive in the rarefied atmosphere of Test rugby for so long?
Being adaptable is a good trait, he says, especially when it comes to adopting new game plans. But there is also having the toolkit that appeals to any coach anywhere. For a prop, that for sure means being able to scrummage and lift, to learn the plays and not need your hand held. He laughs that he doesn’t know how he achieves it, but he’s delighted that he’s been able to.
But through any turmoil or the rise of the next great game plan, there is another constant; one that may well support a veteran of several regimes. As Slipper tells us: “The personality and who I am does not change at all.
“You try to do your best for your team and any particular coach at the time. Different coaches have different philosophies on how the game is playedcand that’s fair. That’s what makes rugby special, the different ways to play the game. But in terms of personalities – and I guess my footprint with the Wallabies – I feel like I haven’t changed. I’ve been myself the whole time and I’d say it’s really important to stay true to yourself.”
Okay, but what skills have you added to your arsenal over your time at the top?
“That’s a good question because from a young age I’ve always been one of those props who wanted to be involved in the rugby, not just the set-piece.
“I’ve always prided myself on work-rate, defence and attack but probably the biggest work-on for me has been ball-carrying. I’m not a big bloke. I wouldn’t class myself as a big, physical ball-runner. What I’ve seen in this game is players are getting bigger, more powerful and quicker. So a player like me has had to adapt to keep up with the young fellas!
“Training is probably the toughest bit at this point in my career. Training loads have gone through the roof with professional rugby. Ten years ago we didn’t train anywhere near as long or as hard as what we do now. That’s just rugby evolving.
“So for an older player like me, it’s about trying to be ahead of the game, smart-wise. It’s using my brain more than my body because if I go head-to-head with big Tongan Thor, Taniela Tupou, I just won’t win.
“It’s about when to put yourself in the game, when not to. Mate, I think a lot of that comes with age and experience. When you’re young you can go out there hammer for tong, and you can probably come out on top. But as you get older that’s harder to do week in, week out. So I’ll try to use my mind more than my body.”
Way back when, James Slipper began an engineering degree, but as rugby became all-consuming he had to leave it behind. Today he is finally cresting on a business degree. He jokes about “punching something off” before he retires, but when he is asked about how he’ll harness that when the boots are eventually cut off his feet, he explains that his brothers are certified builders and that a family racket in the property game would be a good next few steps. But he’s open-minded about industries. There’s that idea of adaptability again…
This all comes from a proud Gold Coast boy, who will happily while away the hours surfing or fishing. On the surface, it’s all laid-back: the accidental centurion catching a wave. But he’s put in serious work on himself to get here.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World in August. Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
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