Ed Slater didn’t see professional rugby as a career when he grew up as a staunch Charlton Athletic fan with a passion for football, but a tour to Amsterdam with his local rugby club set him on a path to being one of the most respected and experienced locks in England. Currently isolated at home with his wife and three children, he is is focusing on the positives of quarantine as he heals his foot; and is quite happy to discuss learning from past mistakes, Gloucester and his career influences.
Slater spent over three months of the season out of action, but strongly believes he’ll be back fitter than ever. With the abundance of negativity during such a torrid time for the world, Slater has taken it upon himself to look at the positives.
The foot is nearly fully recovered, with Slater having returned to action before the COVID-19 onslaught. Gloucester have plenty to work on, but speaking to the 6-feet-6, 19-stone lock, the focus is put firmly on self-improvement.
“The reality is, when I broke my foot in November, it was around 14 weeks until I was back playing. A broken foot is one of those niggly injuries that takes ages to heal. You won’t see a fully healed bone in your foot for 12 months because of blood supply and weight you’re putting on it.
“When I came back I didn’t feel as fit as I could have been. It’s been massive for me to spend time on that and the physios have given me stuff to manage it.”
“It’s really difficult [to set aims] if you don’t know when you’re re-starting. That’s why the focus is on what we did last year and what went wrong. Rugby evolves really quickly and if you’re not constantly thinking about it then you can get left behind and we were a little behind the pace last season.”
With all of his success though comes thanks for the childhood friend who introduced him to the sport, after he initially started out in the round ball code.
“I played football until I was 15. I was fed up of the changing room environment. It was all about who you’d played for, had trials with and what boots you wore. My best mate at school at the time, who I’d said this to a few times, said come down to the local rugby club, and I turned up just in time for an U16s tour to Holland. It was great fun.
“I saw a different side to sport and it wasn’t hard to leave football behind after I came back from that tour.
“The mate who sent me to the club had played rugby since four or five, so when I turned up at Leicester about five years after starting the game, he was like ‘you’re an a******e, I’ve been playing my whole life’, but I have to thank him for starting rugby for me.”
The transition to rugby has given him the chance to work with some of the very best in the sport, most recently a certain Welsh wing sensation.
“Physically I’ve not seen too many better players [than Louis Rees-Zammit]. His raw pace is ridiculous. He’s 6-feet-2, has bigger leg muscles than I do, so he’s built solid. I know from experience that the older you get the more opportunities close up; people are aware of his pace now.
“’How is he going to change?’ is the conversation I’ve had with him. It’s great to burst on the scene and have people being scared of him, so not giving him the space. So, that’s his next progression, how does he keep all the physical attributes he’s got and make them work again for him as people will be a lot more wary of him now. If he can nail that he’s got a massive future ahead of him.
“We don’t have a huge amount of internationals here, so coming back to Gloucester keeps him on the ground a bit. Whilst he’s away and doing his bit with Wales we’re cracking away at Hartpury. The expectation is when you return from that you just get on with Gloucester mode.”
There’s not just the upcoming stars, but established World Cup winners to push the standards. Springbok Franco Mostert is now in his second season at Kingsholm. How does Slater react? He’s worked harder.
“It was his work rate that stood out and that drove me when he arrived, as well as being competition in my position. That made me assess where I was physically. I was a bit of a fridge around the pitch. I’ve had to lose weight and become more mobile as the years went by. He’s had a massive influence on me and how I play the game.
“Even when he turned up prior to the World Cup, I saw him as one of the top locks in the world and it pushed me to work harder. I looked at what he did around the pitch. That’s his x-factor, his work rate.”
Ed looks fondly back on his Leicester days, before the switch deal with Jonny May, and extends his gratitude to those who influenced his career.
“Richard Cockerill,” he says, “Mainly for driving up the standards expected of someone who was playing at Leicester and not giving an inch on that. There was no grey area, you either did it or didn’t and I had to get myself up to that standard very quickly.
“Cockers is the main person I learned a ridiculous amount from in terms of attitude.”
The 31-year-old, who represented the England Saxons still hasn’t completely given up on a full Test cap.
“It’s less thinking it’s never going to happen and more about how can I prolong this career as long as possible, be as fit as I can and play at a level I want to play at. If I can do that, be a decent enough player, and if they’re desperate enough for locks, then I can put my hand up. My priority is performing as well as I can for Gloucester.
“I feel with the quality we have we’ve got to be pushing Champions Cup and top four, and when it comes to semi-finals anything can happen. You just have to put yourself in the best position to make those knockout stages.
Rugby is a sport that’s constantly evolving, and looking to improve. Slater believes a second referee could be a useful next step.
“I’d like to see a second referee brought in, similar to rugby league, to police the breakdown and offside line a bit more. I think that could take pressure of the referee and the assistants.
“I don’t like anything that slows the ball down. I’d like to see if you get held up and into a maul that you have to release the player and the ball is fed back to the scrum-half. There’s basically no advantage then to holding a man up to create a maul and hopefully you’d see a change of tackle technique which you can deliver quicker ball from.”
He’s worked with plenty of talent, but who makes his list of best teammates?
“I was lucky enough at Leicester to play with a ridiculous amount of naturally talented players like Ben Youngs, George Ford or Manu Tuilagi. Those guys stick out massively. Thomas Waldrom at eight, Craig Newby stands out, Brad Thorn.”
The jokers in the team also lie warmly in his memories. “Mark Atkinson. He’s always on it, cracking jokes and he’s hard to get one over on. There’s also Fraser Balmain. He’s very, very dry and a cartoon character. Those two guys are great blokes to be around.”
Slater may be entering the autumn of his career, but you get the impression there is still plenty left in the tank of this engine room veteran.
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