It is genuinely surprising to read that Queensland Reds and Wallabies star James Slipper is only 28 years old. Not because he seems like an old charge; in fact, the loosehead prop is one of the most affable, relaxed and youthful ‘veterans’ you’ll ever admit. No, it’s simply because he has been such an ever-present in both Reds and Wallabies sides, apart from a 2017 season ruined by injury, that it seems like he’s been around forever and a day.
When he made his debut for the Reds back in 2010, it’s highly unlikely he imagined joining a select group who’ve made 100 appearances for Queensland, or joining just 50 other players who have represented Australian Super Rugby teams on 100 occasions.
On the flip side, when he finished the 2015 season with 81 caps to his credit having been an automatic selection basically since he debuted, he probably didn’t imagine he would miss 50% of his side’s next games and would find himself raising the bat in Round 6, 2018, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Ex-Reds Captain and Slipper’s close friend, James Horwill, tells RUPA he wasn’t surprised to see his former teammate reach the momentous milestone.
“I always knew he was a raw talent and I think he always had the skills, but in saying that he was never the most athletic-looking bloke,” Horwill says. “He wasn’t a big explosive guy that you would look at and think was imposing, but I knew he was a very good player.
“I remember very early in Slips’ career at the Reds, he had some good offers from elsewhere. Sean Hardman and I sat down with him and did everything we could to convince him to stay, and I’m so glad we did!”
Joining Hardman and Horwill, and soon to be Slipper, among the elite group of RUPA’s Centurions Club is Melbourne Rebels tighthead prop Laurie Weeks, who spent the first couple of years of his career at the Reds.
He’s proud to call Slipper a mate but has also had to confront the challenge of packing down in opposing scrums since he joined the Rebels in 2011.
“Whenever you’re playing against Slips as a tighthead prop, you know you’re in for a very tough night,” Weeks tells RUPA.
“He’s very skilled at what he does, and he also resorts to cheap tactics like trying to lift my shirt up in the bottom of the ruck, so I’m more focused on my belly. It’s happened more than once; the first time, maybe it’s an accident, but when it happens four or five times a game then I know it’s a trick up his sleeve.”
That sense of humour has served Slipper well. He’s known as a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously off the field, but gets a pretty serious case of white line fever for the 80 minutes he is on the paddock.
“Slips never takes a backwards step from anything, he takes no prisoner on the field, and I think that’s why so many people enjoy playing with him,” Horwill says. “He is the sort of person that doesn’t try to be someone he’s not. He is a very likeable character and a very likeable team mate, and most guys who have played with him over the years would describe him as one of their favourite guys to play alongside. He gets on with his job and he just puts himself about for the betterment of the team, and I think that’s a credit to him.”
With 86 Test caps Slipper is Australia’s second-highest capped prop and was leading Sekope Kepu (91*) before getting injured last year. He’s part of a generation of front rowers who are expected to be comfortable with the ball in hand.
“He was one of the very first of what is the modern front rower,” Horwill says.
“He’s happy running with the ball, and he’s arguably one of the best defenders in general that I have played with. He is pretty quick to tell you he played fly half at school growing up. He’s a very well-rounded Rugby player.”
Off the field, Slipper stepped into Horwill’s shoes as both Reds Captain and Reds Player Director on the RUPA Board when the lock moved to Harlequin (UK) at the end of the 2015 Super Rugby season. Scott Higginbotham took the reins as Reds Captain this year, however his suspension after Round One has seen Slipper back in the drivers’ seat for the past three matches.
“I think Slips has grown into the off-field side of things over time,” Horwill says. “As a youngster, you probably don’t have much interest in doing that, but eventually you realise that can play a bigger part in the team’s direction, on and off the field. He’s been a huge part of that.
“With RUPA, Slips has the opportunity to affect the way the game Is managed and for the players, which is really important. He would be the first to acknowledge that he has certainly grown and has matured as a person, but he remains a no-frills sort of guy, so it’s been about finding the right balance. He is a guy you want in the trenches with you, because you know he is never going to let you down, he’s never going to take a backwards step and he will have your back the whole way through.”
Not that Slipper eats, lives and breathes Rugby, mind you, and he loves to spend any time off back down in the coast on a surfboard.
“He has always been a guy that likes to get away and he doesn’t watch much Rugby, doesn’t want to talk about the game all the time, and he hangs out with a lot of people that don’t talk about it either,” Horwill adds.
So where to from here for James Slipper? Well, he certainly has a lot of time on his hands.
“It’s crazy to think how young he is and how much Rugby he still has left to play,” Horwill says. “He had more Test caps then he had Super Rugby caps for a while there, but it’s great to see him reach 100 caps. He probably thinks this has been a long time coming because of injuries slowing him down, but I know this has been an important milestone to him and I know the boys will do everything they can for him.
“If I had a message to Slips, I’d say go out and enjoy it. I’m genuinely sorry I can’t be out there playing with him; I would love to have been on the field with him for that 100th game, because I know how much playing for Queensland means to him and I know that every time that he pulls that jersey on its something special.”
Weeks agrees and pays credit to the fact that their friendship has remained intact despite having not been on the same side for a number of years.
“When I first joined the Reds in 2009, we had a really young group of guys who pretty much all came in afresh and started our careers together,” he says. “When you get a group of young guys together like that who are keen to play Rugby but also to have fun, you build strong friendships immediately and it’s great that they have lasted even though so many of us are at other teams, interstate or overseas.
“He is one of the genuine good guys, and if you ask anybody in Australian Rugby they will know that about James Slipper, and they will know that he’s an even better Rugby player. He is absolutely one of the guys that I will always be more than happy to sit down and have a beer with.”
A prototype modern-day front rower, scrum deviant, laidback surfer, true to himself Centurion; congratulations, James Slipper, and here’s to many more!
James Slipper Fact File:
Born: Gold Coast, Queensland, 6th June 1989
Super Rugby Caps: 99*
Super Rugby Points: 25
Wallaby Caps: 86
Wallaby Points: 0