Our man Jim Hamilton brings you the latest in his series of ‘Big Jim’s Big Interviews’, in which he chats losing weight, his controversial exit from Leicester and England aspirations with Gloucester lock Ed Slater.
Jim Hamilton: You’re at [Fraser] Balmain’s house?
Ed Slater: At Balmain’s house, yeah.
JH: Tell me a little bit about him.
ES: A little bit about Balmain? I wouldn’t know where to start! I’m not sure I can tell you half of it.
JH: Do the boys call him Balmain?
ES: Big boy. He likes to be known as big boy. Calls himself big boy in the gym, as well. But a very popular man in rugby circles.
JH: Really? Really?
JH: Disappointed I didn’t rub shoulders with him in my time.
ES: He won’t give you it all on first glance, but if you’re in the changing room with him, you see and hear the best of him. Most of the stories I’d like to tell you, I probably can’t, although actually [to Balmain] can I tell him the Christmas Eve one? That was quite funny. Yeah, yeah.
JH: Yeah, let’s start off with a story Slates, I love this.
ES: So, Fraser is from Newcastle and he’s driving back up there on Christmas Eve, he’s on the motorway and he goes into one of the 50mph zones and into one lane of traffic. He’s a bit tense, he’s a bit upset. He does the gentlemanly thing and lets this woman in when the lanes are merging, but this bloke in a van is pushing his luck, so Fraser thinks not a chance, mate. He gets on the outside to make sure he definitely can’t get in, closes him off and carries on his journey.
Anyway, it opens back up and it’s still a 50mph zone, so this bloke is driving alongside him and obviously can’t go any quicker than 50mph. Just driving alongside him, abusing him out of the window. He’s got the window down, screaming at him. Fraser reckons this has gone on for about five minutes, so he’s flipped him a finger or two, but not really fancied anything more. Then it’s gone on for about 10 minutes, so he’s wound down the window and said “right, side of the road” and this bloke in the van is “yep”, straight over.
So, they pull into these services on the A1, conveniently outside a sex shop, as well. Fraser pulls in and stops – I don’t know why but he tells me he was quite calm – slowly switches his engine off and goes to open his door. But, as he goes to open his door, the bloke in the van has obviously jumped out as quickly as he can and raced across, and he’s punched in the nose by the bloke, before he has even got out of the car. Fraser has fallen back in the car and he then wrestles his way back out – he says he’s landed a couple of shots but I’m not so sure – and then wrestles this bloke for about five minutes and eventually gets on top of him. He says he’s started ‘Donkey Kong-ing’ him, you know, hammer-fisting. This bloke has gone “alright, f****** hell, get off me” and they both get off the floor.
Fraser’s nose is split, bleeding everywhere, he claims the other guy had a cut – I’m not so sure – but there’s no proof. There’s proof of Fraser’s split nose. The bloke has got up and gone “oh f*** it, it’s Christmas” and shaken Fraser’s hand. They then both pull out back on to the motorway and again, they’re stuck next to each other at 50mph. Anyway, it’s opened up and the 50mph limit has ended, so he’s gone to speed passed this bloke and the bloke, out the window, is giving him a big thumbs up! Then they just go off on their separate ways and Fraser gets home on Christmas Eve to his mum with blood all over him and a split nose, having been battered on the side of the road!
JH: Christmas fight club, mate.
ES: It’s the Donkey Kong punches on top of him.
JH: Big boy could have told that story that he nearly killed a bloke on the side of the road up to Newcastle outside a sex shop…
ES: He’s a humble man.
JH: He’s an honest man. An honest man.
ES: An honest man, yeah. That’s a tame version compared to some of his stories. You should get him on one of your shows. A late night show.
JH: Definitely going to get him on. Right, Slates, let’s get into a bit of rugby, because that’s why we’re here. We’re doing this ‘Big Jim’s Big Interview’, get it?
ES: Yeah, yeah.
JH: So, we’ve got a few mates of mine along the way, a few guys who are playing well and have been picked out.
ES: There will be a lot of bigger names than me, so maybe it’s like ‘Big Jim’s interview with Ed Slater’.
JH: Mate, I see what’s happening here, it’s the humble Gloucester.
ES: No, that’s the Leicester. That’s the Leicester coming out.
JH: Exactly. Well, let’s not talk about Leicester. I was championing you to make the England squad last week, it didn’t happen, and we’ll get on to that a little later, but firstly, how’s the body? You’re looking lean, you’re looking fit, you’re looking hungry, you’re looking bald.
ES: Definitely bald! I think it’s a look I’m going to keep but I had a bit of an epiphany in the summer. I realised I was approaching 30 – and now I am 30 – and I’ve not been the leanest man going around. I’ve been a bit of a slab, moving around the pitch. I’ve had my injury issues and I don’t think that running around at 120+ kilos was helping that and we had Jamie Peacock come in at Gloucester and he gave us a chat. He talked about how he changed his game playing rugby league, how he was a bit of a crash-ball merchant starting off with, and then he had to get better at passing and he wanted to get fitter. He said he wasn’t the most talented, but he worked on his fitness and all this, that and the other. I just thought I need to change my game.
The game’s getting quicker, as you can see, and yeah, it is physical, but people are always looking at how quick you get off the ground, how quick you’re reloading and your kick chases, things like that. I don’t think the shape I was in was suiting that game. I thought to myself over the summer that I need to make the most of the years that I’ve got left and lose a bit of timber, not just because of the knees, but also because the game’s changed from what it was. That was the reason behind it.
I’ve dropped 10 kilos. I was playing at 123 to 124 kilos at points last season, now I’m below 115 kilos.
JH: Joking aside, you look lean, you look fit. Obviously, [Johan] Ackermann has come in, he was an old school second-row and South Africans play in a certain way, but did he say anything about losing the weight? Has he understood that the Premiership is a lot quicker and the game has evolved?
ES: No, he didn’t say anything to me about my weight, but you know you get banter in the changing room when you’re a bit out of shape or you’re not as quick around the park. You’re watching the review of games and going “Christ, could I work a bit harder there? Am I moving well? Am I quick enough to rucks?”
I was watching it and thinking about the way we are trying to play the game, I know you say old school South African second-row, but he wants to play that expansive game. I was looking at games and going “could I be better?” and there’s even more competition this season with the second-row signings. [Gerbrandt] Grobler has come in, [Franco] Mostert still to come. It’s that moment where you think you have to change something, and you’ve got to look at yourself first. The game plan and those things aren’t the problem, it’s me getting around the pitch, so it was as simple as that, really.
JH: We mentioned Ackermann there, but what kind of influence has he had on the squad? When I was at Gloucester there were lots of changes, but it just seems now that the club and the squad seem a lot more settled? What’s the number one thing that Ackermann has brought into the squad?
ES: He’s got the presence. He can control the group with his presence and he sets the tone to the group. He’s a guy that gives you a lot of leeway in terms of playing the game, he wants you to make decisions for yourself on the pitch, so he’s not there hammering detail, necessarily, which is probably what I’ve been used to at Leicester. There’s a lot more freedom in that sense, but he’s a bloke that sets a tone through his presence.
He’s a big character, wants people to enjoy themselves, wants the environment to be a good place and a place that people want to play at, so for me that’s his biggest influence. After that, he’s all about expansive rugby, looking for opportunities, taking space. He wants to see you offload the ball and he wants to see you making decisions, so that’s how he builds training, really, around that style of play. First and foremost, big character, big presence and sets the tone.
JH: For you personally, we’ve obviously chatted about you being fit and you playing at the top of your game regularly, but what’s it like being captain? I was captain at Gloucester and for me it was a huge honour. It’s a very a big club with big expectations. How have you found that yourself and managing that weight of expectation?
ES: It’s a lot easier than when I first got the responsibility at Leicester. I look back and cringe a bit, at some of the things I’d get hung up on around training and other bits and pieces, but I think I’m a bit wiser now. Performance is massive, you’ve got to be fit and leading the squad on the pitch and playing well. After that, you can start to look at some of the finer details around training standards, bits and pieces like that. Before, when I was at Leicester, I was injured for one year that I was captain and because I wasn’t doing anything on the pitch, I got stuck in on details of what we were doing in training or bits around wives and girlfriends.
Now, it’s a bit more relaxed. Getting the job done on the pitch with a calm head is the way forward and then the senior squad as a group can take care of the smaller things, so that’s the difference and how I manage the captaincy. We’ve also got Cips [Danny Cipriani] in the squad, he’s a great voice in attack. He, obviously, knows some parts of the game a lot better than I do!
JH: Not much, only a little bit…
ES: Only a little bit, yeah. He’s a good voice to have in that sense. Obviously, Willi [Heinz] is the club captain and he’s out injured, but he’s an old head and a calm voice, so I use him a lot to see what he’s thinking and what he sees off the pitch at the moment.
JH: You mentioned Cips, I wasn’t going to bring him up but as you’ve mentioned him there, we may as well. I saw Billy’s [Twelvetrees] interview before the game that it’s all about the squad and all about the team, but we’re straight-talking and you do rub shoulders with people who have significantly more social media followers than ourselves. He comes to Gloucester and it is a big deal when someone of that calibre, maybe off the pitch, as well as on it, makes that move. How has it been with him being at Gloucester?
There was all the chat about whatever happened in Jersey. Was it true that he said about the golden wrists? Because I personally think that he does have golden wrists.
ES: [laughter] No one knows, but it’s not stopping us from giving him stick about it! No one really knows, but we are certainly putting that in the changing room. I said it when someone asked me about the Jersey incident, he’s probably the only bloke in the squad with that kind of celebrity profile and you could argue that at Wasps, there’s probably a few guys with that kind of higher profile there.
I get the impression that it’s a difficult thing to handle, not that I’ll ever know! He’s been in the limelight for years, so I think it comes with the territory, but in terms of Gloucester, it’s quite a small place. Between there and Cheltenham, there’s not a whole lot going on, like there might be in London, so it’s probably a good place to be for him, with that kind of profile.
JH: I don’t know if you want to touch on it, but you mentioned when you were at Leicester and there were a few people pissed off with how it all came about, in terms of your transfer. How long did it take you to get over that? Because I know it was a massive thing for you.
You were a Leicester type of player, I was so surprised when they let you go, because even now, they’re light in the second-row as we can see. How long has it taken you to get over that?
ES: It was difficult once it became apparent that Leicester were more than willing to make the swap happen. At that point, I realised I had to speak to Gloucester and see what they were offering. Not just in terms of contract, but what the club was about, living-wise where was I going to take the family, so I knew I had to take that seriously. It was difficult when I realised Leicester were really keen to get Jonny [May] in, and if that meant sacrificing me or making me part of the deal, they were fine with that.
I then turned up in not the best condition, I’d been out for a few months with a broken foot, and it was hard to make a mark on the group. It was an up and down year, I’ve been quite open about that. I was down here for a few months without the family and then we got them down and that helped, and then towards February and March, I think I played some decent rugby, but it had been very up and down until that point.
There were definitely points where I lingered on how the move had happened and how I left the club. It was, pretty much, ok, the deal is happening. I went to the training ground, said bye to a few people, took my boots and that was that. I hadn’t really seen anyone leave Leicester in that way. I know Cockers [Richard Cockerill] was very good when people left the club, regardless of how many games you’d played, you got a shirt and a thank you. Whereas with me, it felt very in and out, considering I’d been there for a while.
There were definitely points last season where I could look back and say it played on my mind a few times. Once I hit that March period and my family were settled in, though, we were doing well in the Challenge Cup, we were still fighting for those top four and top six positions, and I had a bit of hunger back in me. That’s how it evolved, really, and now I’m fully-fledged at Gloucester and that stuff is behind me.
I’ve still got mates at Leicester and enjoy watching them play. I’ll always support them when I’m not playing against them because I played with them for so long, but it’s happened, and it was a really good learning experience for me, because I want to stay in rugby after I play. The reality is, players all the time get cut or paid out, or things don’t work out as you’d like them to, so I’ve just got to take it on the chin and be grateful that Gloucester were really keen to have me. I’m happy I’m here, playing under Johan and with some really good teammates.
JH: In terms of your form, I’ve chatted a bit about it on the podcast and with mates, about you being in the England squad, and I’m genuinely saying that. I’ve felt your performances have been right up there and you deserve to be in that England set-up, ahead of someone like George Kruis, who I was at Saracens with, but who has had a lot of injuries. I imagine the England ambition is there, but have you had any conversations? Do you know where you stand with it all?
ES: I don’t. I certainly haven’t had any phone calls. It’s a difficult one, because I think a couple of times in the press I’ve written myself off, saying that I’ve probably missed that boat, but I’d be stupid if I really felt that in my heart of hearts. I’ve always desperately wanted to play for England and I will always keep that ambition.
Where do I stand in the pecking order? I don’t know, but you’ve got to accept there are some young, talented players coming through and there’s a lot of competition in the second-row. I think part of that desire to play for England was why I tried to lose a bit of weight and change my game a bit in the summer, because I felt I was almost definitely not going to be a part of, or even talked about in, that set-up the way I was. Again, that was probably a driving factor about changing that perception of myself this summer.
I’m desperate to play for England and always will be. If I get a phone call, brilliant.
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JH: Last question. Gloucester as a club, what’s going to be a successful season going forward this year? I know the expectation at the club is high, it’s been up and down over the years, but like I mentioned earlier, it does feel like a much more settled squad and a better culture. I know you were humbled at Saracens, who are a top a team, but what are the expectations for the Gloucester fans this season?
ES: I certainly think there is a step up in expectations from last season. I think people were pleasantly surprised at some of the performances we turned out and you can tell the expectations from the outside are higher on us. I’ve read things about being a top four side and this, that and the other. I certainly think we’ve got the quality to match some of the teams at the top end of the table. I think for us, that little bit of consistency has been lacking in our game and some errors have cost us, particularly in the Bath game.
In terms of internal expectations, it’s not something we really talk about. We are working week to week and I know that sounds a bit of a cliché, but I don’t think Johan is too keen on putting a definitive target on the squad. He’s quite keen that we just keep playing rugby, week to week, but the expectation on each other in training, when we are reviewing games, is perhaps higher than it may have been last year, when he was still just trying to bring in his philosophy.
That’d be the difference. I think there’s a higher expectation on ourselves when we look back on games or we are going into games, but there’s certainly not a label on it, such as this is what we want to be, or this is where we want to finish, which is fine and not a bad thing. It’s different to what I was used to at Leicester, where, and you’ll know it, it was “we want to win trophies” and it was as simple as that, that’s our goal. It’s not quite as definitive as that, but the expectation from the coaches on the players is higher than it was last year.
JH: Slates, love that. That’s it, done. Appreciate that and if you speak to Big Boy Balmain, tell him if I’m looking for a scrap around Christmas, I’ll head up the A1 and look for the sex shop!
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