'You can play up to 32 games a year and it's just mental': Colin Slade explains why the Top 14 is on a completely different level to Super Rugby
Seven years of professional rugby in NZ was enough for the Cantabrian, who had won multiple provincial championships with his province and cracked over 80 appearances for the Crusaders and Highlanders in Super Rugby.
Pau was to be Slade’s destination – a side that had only just fought its way out of France’s second division and was looking at bringing in some proven performers to complement the side’s local talent.
After four-and-a-half years in the southwest of France, Slade has now called time on his career in Europe and signed to play for the Mitsubishi Dynaboars in Tokyo.
At the time of Slade’s recruitment by Pau, the up-and-coming team had also secured the services of Conrad Smith and the small city was popping at the arrival of two All Blacks, fresh off a win over the Wallabies at the 2015 Word Cup.
“I wasn’t there before we arrived, but from what I heard, they were just waiting for us to turn up,” Slade told RugbyPass.
“I can’t speak for the team, but it felt like it wasn’t necessarily what we could do, it was probably more just the confidence it gave to the other guys. For a recent division two team over in France to get a couple of world champions pop in… you could just feel the vibe of the place.
“They had the new injection of sponsors and stuff when we turned up as well, so they had massive ambitions to be, I suppose, a bit of a fairytale story in France. We’d seen it in the past with Toulon and Racing as well, so Pau was tracking on that similar lines in terms of wanting to go to the top six and stuff like that.”
Those are some lofty expectations to lump onto arriving players, but Slade wasn’t concerned.
“They were really excited when we turned up and we were keen to live up to those expectations,” Slade said.
“I made the point when I first turned up that I was 28 and I wasn’t there for a holiday. I wanted to go over there and contribute, and play my best rugby.”
Slade and Smith made an instant impact, with Pau managing a 9th place finish in the team’s first season in the first division. In the years that followed, things continued to trend upwards as new faces arrived including another former All Black, Tom Taylor, and most recently, Ben Smith.
While Pau were making steady progress, the play was still incredibly tough and a new challenge for Slade and his fellow foreign teammates.
“I’m always tentative to say this, but it is a different intensity of play,” Slade said. “Super Rugby is probably faster whereas, in the Northern Hemisphere, with its long seasons, it can be a bit more of a grind and, in general, I’d say there are bigger blokes too.
“I think ‘emotional’ is probably the best way to describe French rugby. If they’re really motivated, they are freaking tough to stop. Even if they’re not the most skilful players or the most athletic, fastest, whatever, when their emotions are up, they can beat anyone.
“Obviously, the All Blacks have seen that, but you see it on the club level too. The number of times I’ve seen the 13th, 14th placed teams beat the first and second-placed teams – which wouldn’t happen back in New Zealand – just because they’re playing at home or one of their players is playing his 100th game or whatever, they just grow an extra arm and a leg and it’s something that I’ve grown to appreciate.
“It’s not necessarily always the small details or tactics and stuff like that. It’s just that if you have a desire to win, all that other stuff figures itself out. A team can rally really, really quickly.”
"In the back of my mind, it was all about just trying not to get hurt so I could pay my rent."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 15, 2020
When Slade first arrived, Pau were that 13th or 14th placed underdog but as the seasons passed, other teams were striving to knock them off their perch.
And those seasons didn’t exactly pass quickly, with the Top 14 running from late August until early June every year.
“It’s a long grind up there,” Slade admitted. “Sometimes, I’d play 13 weeks straight and you never did that back in New Zealand.”
Squads are built to last the season, which means that players shouldn’t – in theory – be too overworked. That doesn’t always work out in practice, however.
“We just had a few niggles in the last couple of seasons. Unfortunately, Tom’s been injured a wee bit in the last couple of years and then I had a few myself this year.
“I’ve been quite well looked after at Pau. Our coaches have been quite mindful of [player welfare], but you can play up to 32 games a year and it’s just mental. That’s not even including playoffs and European games.
“That’s probably the reason why I left, to be honest. It was just that Groundhog Day of basically doing 48 weeks straight together as a team in the same building, same gym, or whatever. Then you get your four weeks off and you do it all over again.
“Times that by four and a half years and it’s tough. Yeah, I’m getting paid well – but I’m probably taking years off the end of my career.”
It’s not just the long seasons that was tough to adjust to, but also the completely different rugby calendar.
“You’re playing through Christmas and New Year’s, when, traditionally for Kiwis, you’re at the beach and you’re having time off,” Slade said. “I’ve played on the 23rd, I’ve played on the 27th – it’s just normal. We just roll on through, but that’s the nature of it, you can’t avoid it.
“Rugby is supposed to be a winter game so you’ve got to expect a bit of rain but I’ve played games at 38 degrees, and then I’ve played games in fricking snow.”
“The replay got played over and over again and my head just kept dropping more and more as I looked at it.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 13, 2020
Still, you don’t last almost half a decade playing professional rugby in a place if you’re not enjoying it and Slade is quick to trumpet the benefits of his time in Europe too.
“It’s been cool, man. I’ve loved every minute I’ve been over here, and it was just so hard to leave,” said Slade. “When you think about what we’ve managed to achieve in the four and a half years that we’ve been here, travel wise, it’s unreal. You name a country, we’ve been there.
“We really enjoyed France, so that’s why I was really open to staying on here too but I’m conscious of the fact that this may be my last contract.”
Ultimately, it’s not so much the long, taxing seasons that have made Slade and his family pull the plug on their time in Europe, but more the fact that they’ve simply completed what they set out to do – embrace a new culture and experience some things that wouldn’t have been possible back in New Zealand.
“I experienced what I wanted to experience, I came over and I played with the French for four and a half years and felt like I’d done what I needed to,” Slade said. “I did the travel stuff – and we haven’t travelled as much since we had kids – so it felt like we weren’t going to achieve any more travel.”
Rugby-wise, Slade’s seen players come and go for Pau and played a massive role in taking his team from a low-tier side in the Top 14 to one of the teams to beat – although a title has eluded them.
“The team went really well for a couple of years when I first turned up,” Slade said. “Every season, we got better – but we had a bad year last year where we lost quite a lot of guys coming off-contract.
“I felt like this year was a bit more of a rebuilding year and I didn’t really want to be part of a rebuild again. I felt like, if I’m being honest, this team had probably missed its chance to play play-offs and, perhaps with not too long left in my career, I just needed a change, I think.”
That change will come in the form of playing in Japan, with Slade planning on making his way over to the Land of the Rising Sun in time for the lengthy Top League pre-season.
“With the kids and stuff like that, I think being near to home and being able to spend more time at home between seasons and stuff like that is a little bit more important for the grandparents and for my wife as well,” Slade said.
“In some ways, it’s probably more of a family decision than a rugby decision but we’ve now also got the chance for a new culture and a new experience too and it’s probably the last crack to do that.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now