The Gloucester and former England lock has retired from rugby after devastating news about his health, bringing an end to a career that embraced both hemispheres
Rugby unites behind Ed Slater, diagnosed with MND
News that Ed Slater has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) has prompted a huge outpouring of support and goodwill messages from the rugby community.
The Gloucester lock, who will be 34 next week, has retired from rugby with immediate effect following confirmation that he has the degenerative condition. Doddie Weir and the late Joost van der Westhuizen are other high-profile rugby players to have contracted MND, which affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord.
A JustGiving page set up by Gloucester Rugby in his honour received more than £70,000 within days and Slater took to Twitter to thank people for the generosity of their response.
Rugby World interviewed the player a while back and, typical of the man, he spoke openly and at length about his life and career. As a player and a leader, Slater showed many of the qualities of his rugby hero Martin Johnson, inspiring colleagues through his rugged and uncompromising work at close quarters.
Away from the pitch, he has always had a thoughtful and intelligent presence. His English Premiership career with Leicester and Gloucester spanned 12 years, the 6ft 6in second-row making his final three league appearances in a 2021-22 campaign beset with months of medical tests. But where did his journey begin?
Slater was born in Leicester, the youngest of three brothers, but his family moved to Milton Keynes when he was still young. His dad, Colin, had a job in software while mum Jo worked in the breast cancer unit at Milton Keynes general hospital. The couple split up when Ed was young, his father moving to London.
When Ed was five, he went to his first football camp – the start of a passion for the round-ball game. Three years later he was in Blackheath visiting his dad’s brother, who asked if Ed wanted to go to a Charlton Athletic game.
“You go to your first game and from then on you’re kind of obsessed by it,” Ed recalled. “I’m still a big football fan but at the time I was completely obsessed. We played Bolton Wanderers and it was a 4-4 draw, so it was an even better experience. That would have been 1996. Loads of people talk about their first-ever football game, going through the stand, seeing the big green pitch. It’s mesmerizing, isn’t it?”
Ed’s memory might be playing a trick here; we think the match he went to was a 3-3 draw – you can watch highlights here…
Slater admits he was starstruck when a few years later, aged 11 or 12, he met the Charlton and Wales midfielder John Robinson at a supporters’ day.
Ed went to a local comprehensive school, Denbigh, where rugby games were few and far between. “Generally half the football team would fill in, there were one or two who played club rugby out of school. Apart from that it was just a mix and match of random players, the quickest would go on the wing, the fattest would go in the front row, it was that kind of comedy situation really. That’s how our rugby side was made up.”
He was 16 when he decided to play rugby for Milton Keynes RFC. “Two of my best mates, and still my best mates, played rugby there. So I had an awareness of it but I was completely into football. I played for the local football team, I played for the school, I played district.
“So that was my thing and then I got to about 16 and the trail went dead for football. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with it. And my mates said, ‘Look, come and play rugby, you’re a big bloke, you’ll pick it up easily enough.’
“So I went down to Milton Keynes and they had a good colts team. Milton Keynes had a bit of a rough side at the time. We had a good social side and we won a few games against teams like Marlow, Amersham & Chiltern, Beaconsfield. We’d do all right against them.
“After that it was just about learning the rules and what I was trying to do around the pitch. That was probably the hardest thing for me. In football I was a central midfielder or a striker. In rugby I started in the centre. I didn’t have the physique for football. Before I had a growth spurt I was a chubby kid. It just didn’t fit in with the football crowd, so I fell out of that and obviously suited rugby.
“It took me a while to get used to the game. I was pretty much catch the ball and just run. I was trying to work the game out really.
“But the thing that really caught me was the social side off the pitch. I’d come from football, which had a selfish mentality. Even amongst kids it’s about possessions: what boots you have, who your mates are, which club you’re playing for, it was that mentality.
“Whereas the rugby club was a lot more inclusive. I went on a tour early on when I joined, did all the things that you do on tour, that was when I thought ‘this is it’. We went to Eindhoven in Holland and played in a tournament. There wasn’t much camaraderie in football whereas with the rugby side we were all in it together.
“And I loved that, I thought it was just brilliant. I’d never experienced it. That was what really grabbed my attention and kept me going back. Because I wasn’t too great when I started out because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
Greg Rutherford, who won the long jump at the 2012 Olympics in London, was a contemporary of Ed’s at Denbigh. He was in the year above. “I know Greg well. He was big mates with my brother, who was in his year. I went to school with Greg from Two Mile Ash Middle School, so we’re talking from Year Four, age eight or nine.
“My brother and him were pretty close, close enough that he’d come and stay at the house. His brother Rob was a brilliant rugby player. Greg going through school was always ridiculously quick at the 100m sprint. He was really good at football. He was on trial with one of the local clubs like Luton or Watford or Northampton, one of those clubs.
“Through Two Mile Ash I played the year above at football, so I played alongside Greg in teams, and then when we got to Denbigh he repeated his first year of sixth form.
“We were in a business studies lesson and the teacher said, ‘Tell us what your future plans are.’ Greg got up and said, ‘I’m going to go to the Beijing Olympics’ and we all pissed ourselves. Me in particular was ribbing him a bit for it. So in his autobiography he wrote, “Yeah, I remember Ed Slater saying, ‘Yeah, of course you’re going to go…’”
Ed left school with poor grades and decided to take a gap year. He was scratching around for money – doing painting and decorating, working in a call centre – so he and a friend, Joe Gorman, decided to shake things up. They had saved enough money to go to Australia and the plan was to find a job there and play a bit of rugby too.
“Initially the first couple of weeks we were drinking, I was going to forget the rugby. Joe kept going, coming back after every session and saying ‘come down’ and I wasn’t really interested. But eventually I went down to Eastern Suburbs.
“That was the biggest change and progression in my rugby career. Joe is that kind of bloke, he’s got willpower. He convinced me to go down in the end and it’s the best thing I did. If I hadn’t have done, there’s not a chance that I would played here. That was 2007.
“I got most of my jobs through the rugby club. I did odd bits of labouring to keep ticking over. My main job in the first part of Australia was working in a car and van rental centre. After that I went into cleaning, a 5am start at Randwick hospital. Finish at 2pm, so it worked well. In the afternoons I had that time down the beach and went to training in the evenings.
“Eventually, I ended up working for a tree removal company. That was the best job, a bloke called Andy Boucher looked after me. And in the evenings I worked in a pizza shop while I was doing that. I enjoyed it, and there was a sense of satisfaction about it.”
Ed’s rugby prospered, both at Easts and at NSW Waratahs where he played for the A team. Several of his Waratahs team-mates went on to have professional careers, such as Scott Sio, Peter Betham, Greg Petersen, Paddy Ryan and Chis Alcock. Ed played at blindside but Scott Bowen, the head of recruitment, envisaged him graduating to No 8.
“I loved it, had a brilliant time. For that 2007 I played in the U21s (Easts) side. I was playing with guys who were playing for NSW Schoolboys, a couple of Australian Schoolboys as well.
“Coming from Milton Keynes, it was never a level I’d been around. And I started to train and play alongside these blokes. My understanding of the game got so much better, my skill-set got better, and by the time the season was coming around I was in and around that level. I thought, ‘Actually, I’m not far off here’. And that gave me a bit of hunger to push on.
“We played a trial game against Brumbies with that colts side and I had a really good game, and I started the season in the first colts team. So that was the impetus really to push on.”
Yet as an Englishman in an Australian environment, Slater never felt completely comfortable. So when Mike Penistone, his coach at Easts and a mentor to him even to this day, brought up the possibility of joining Leicester Tigers, Ed was all ears.
“When the opportunity (to join Leicester) came up, it was that kind of ‘do I or don’t I?’ situation. At the time I had a long-term girlfriend, an Australian girl, I’d pretty much set my life up over there in terms of a friendship group and the direction I was heading in because I had the opportunity with the Waratahs. So it was difficult.
“But because I was English and because I knew all about Leicester Tigers and because I thought it wasn’t an opportunity that would come round again, I felt I had to go and do it. And whatever happened happened. It was a win-win situation. If it hadn’t worked out (at Leicester), I’d go back to Sydney, I’d still play at Easts, I’d try to work my way through the set-up at Waratahs. I would have been happy with either scenario.”
Ed had actually started a journalism degree at Lincoln University in 2007, returning after his six-month jaunt was over, but he was invited back by Easts and this time stayed Down Under until 2010. He figured he could always do his degree later.
“I had an interest in writing, reporting, particularly sports writing. That was the real route I wanted to go down. I carried that out with the communications degree at Notre Dame Uni in Sydney. I did a year and a half there but had to quit that to come back to Tigers.”
So he might easily have become a journalist?
“Potentially. But I couldn’t see how I was going to get into the business because I didn’t have any credentials. So I wasn’t sold on the idea but I knew that I enjoyed it, and that’s why I decided to study it. I used to do rugby reports for the local paper in Milton Keynes. And I ran a website called ‘MK Charlton’, which was the MK arm of a Charlton supporters’ group. I built and ran the website for that, and wrote match reports on Charlton.”
Slater was to spend seven years at the Tigers, initially earning his chance after the retirement of Ben Kay and Richard Blaze. When Geoff Parling left the club in 2015, Slater took on the role he’d held as ambassador for Bridge Leicester, a charity that offers food, shelter and counselling for the homeless.
In his earlier years at Leicester, they were reaching Premiership finals almost annually. Slater became a growing force in the English game, captaining the Midlands club. No one was surprised when Stuart Lancaster took him on the 2014 England tour of New Zealand, where Slater captained his country against Crusaders.
England won 38-7 but it was a bittersweet day for the second-row as he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that probably cost him a prized Test cap.
“Captaining England is definitely up there as a highlight but it’s a difficult one because I did my ACL in that game, so it was the day that probably my England career faltered. My highlight was winning the Premiership with Leicester, against Northampton in 2013. I’d been in two grand finals before that and lost. That was the one when Dylan Hartley got sent off. They put up a good fight but we played the last five or ten minutes knowing we had won.”
In 2017, he joined Gloucester as part of a deal that took Jonny May to Welford Road. His rugby remained as robust as ever but with so many outstanding English locks – Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis all toured with the 2017 Lions, with Joe Launchbury desperately unlucky to miss out – Slater was never able to win the Test cap that he deserved.
Married to Jo, the father of three will be sorely missed as a player at Kingsholm, where he was an undoubted favourite. But fans everywhere will be rooting for one of the game’s good guys as he takes on the toughest opponent he will ever face.
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