James Slipper primed for another Super year
February 21, 2014
James Slipper isn't sure if he's an ageing 24-year-old or a young 49-Test veteran. But the bustling Wallabies prop can be excused. Considering the games he racked up in 2013 - and the number of tackles, hit-ups, clean-outs, mauls and scrums - Slipper deserves to be a tad unsure.
Not only did the dynamic front-rower front up and rip in for 34 matches for Australia and the Queensland Reds, he was among the hardest working in each. The perfect example of the modern-day prop, and how much rugby has changed in the professional era, Slipper is straight back in the saddle on Saturday night against the Brumbies.
Starting his fifth pro season, Slipper - content to pass under the radar while backline stars grab the headlines - has already gained 49 Test caps and 51 Super Rugby appearances for the Reds.
Wallaby stalwarts Ben Alexander and Benn Robinson are poised to pass Al Baxter's record for most Tests as an Australian prop (69) this year but it appears inevitable Slipper will catch and pass them in time.
If his form and resilience remain, then George Smith's mark of 111 as most-capped Wallabies' forward will fall before the likeable Gold Coaster turns 30 - the age props are supposed have hit their peak.
"I always tell everyone I'm only 24 but I feel like I'm 30," Slipper said. "I've played over 100 professional games now in the space of three-and-a-half years. I'm 24, hopefully I still improve by the time I'm 30. That's six years away."
It's been a speedy rise for Slipper who "skyrocketed", as he tells it, into the Wallabies team in 2010 a month after making a surprise starting debut for Queensland as an Academy player when injuries struck before their final-round game against the Highlanders.
He shone, got included in Australia's wider training squad, impressed in an Australia A match and then Robbie Deans named him on the bench to play England in Perth a week after his 21st birthday.
The grizzled English front-row - including Steve Thompson and Dan Cole - completely demolished the young Wallabies scrum and Slipper survived the ultimate baptism of fire when pitched in for a series of five-metre scrums on his own line - packing down at both loose-head then the more demanding tight-head when Salesi Ma'afu was sin-binned.
"It was a good birthday present but I was a bit nervous," he recalled. "I was sitting on the bench watching our scrum get absolutely touched up. It was tough but it showed what Test footy was all about for me and what I had to get to to stay there. It definitely made me who I am now."
He hasn't looked back since, only suffering the one serious injury, albeit ankle ligament damage which forced him to miss the Reds' 2011 Super Rugby triumph.
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie, who played 51 Tests of his own in the 1990s, is among those who marvel at how much work Slipper gets through in open play in spite of packing down in scrums.
McKenzie likens his mobility and work-rate to that of a back-rower - the main reason Slipper usurped Robinson as the Wallabies No.1 once the former Reds mentor replaced Deans last year. "His ability to run and tackle and tackle backs - he doesn't function like an old-school prop," he said. "He's not a liability in any capacity and he has high numbers in attack and defence - and it's the quality of the work. He manages to do a lot of things I could never do."
"I've never complained about how much we play," he said. "You ask any player and you get to 30 and there's still two Wallaby games left, you aren't going to put your hand down for them. You want to win, that's what I want to do."
Now Slipper is back where he started - wearing the Reds No.1 jersey against the Brumbies, the first time he's been picked at loose-head for Queensland instead of tight-head since his 2010 debut.
"I'm really going to enjoy it because I love my loose-head," he said. "I only play tight-head because the team needs it. Like I said before, I'm here to win and I'll do whatever it takes."