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FEATURE Ollie Sleightholme: 'If you speak to players, every single one cares about player safety.'

Ollie Sleightholme: 'If you speak to players, every single one cares about player safety.'
2 months ago

Ollie Sleightholme is an outsider. Those aren’t our words, but his. Well, more or less. “I’m not like most of the guys,” he told RugbyPass. “A lot of people have told me that I’m too mature. I don’t like any of the young stuff. I don’t go out with the rest of the lads too often. I like fishing and walking my dogs. I’m an old man really,” he says with a chuckle.

Ignoring that final, slightly self-deprecating line, the above sentiment is one worth keeping in mind when assessing the character of Northampton’s 23-year-old winger.

Yes he’s leading the Premiership with 10 tries from just nine matches, and yes he’s been a potent weapon as the Saints have dazzled all before them to top the Gallagher Premiership and win all four of their Champions Cup group games to set up a home tie against Munster in the next round, but that’s simply rugby chat. When speaking to a mind like the one between Sleightholme’s ears, there’s a chance something more compelling might crop up.

So it did organically shortly after we started recording. It was a soft ball of a question concerning his return from a hamstring injury that curtailed much of his previous campaign. And then, without any prompt, he waded into the sensitive area of concussion.

“Realistically we know the sport we’re playing in,” he said, referencing the debilitating head knock he sustained while training with England in 2021, as one of “quite a few” he’s incurred over his short career.

“We know that we’re putting our bodies on the line and we know what we’re signing up for. And you don’t have to sign up for it. No one is forced to be a professional rugby player. So we know the risk that comes with playing the game I’ve grown up loving.

Ollie Sleightholme
Ollie Sleightholme was in scintillating form against Saracens as Saints stayed top of the Premiership (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I wouldn’t want it to change. If you end up making it so safe, that puts people off. I’ve heard of putting the tackle age up in younger age groups but I’m not sure that will fix things. Of course we need to make sure the game is as safe as possible, but it’s a balance that needs to be right.”

That is a measured take from a player who might feel compelled to call for more stringent measures. After all, his own livelihood has been threatened by the inherent danger in rugby.

“If you speak to players, every single one cares about player safety and everyone cares about the obvious high shots,” he added. “There are obvious things that will allow us to make the game safer. But at the same time rugby isn’t a safe game. Not totally. It is a contact sport. And any contact sport in the world will always carry a degree of risk.

“And as a player you know the risks you take when you play. There are ways to make it safer and rugby is doing a hell of a lot to make it safer. But it’s impossible to make it a completely safe sport.”

If we follow the guidelines we’ll be okay. And if something does happen and you’re concussed and haven’t passed the test, you won’t play. There is no way around that and that’s a really good thing.

Sleightolme’s views on the matter, as with most things that concern rugby, have been shaped by conversations with his father. Jon Sleightholme, for the uninitiated, is a former livewire winger who played 12 Tests for England and was part of the side that won the Five Nations in 1996. He also played on over 50 occasions for Northampton having established himself at Bath.

“He’s seen a massive change since he was playing,” the younger Sleightholme said. “Back then [concussion] just wasn’t a thing people spoke about. Now the protocols are there and it’s clear and it’s in place to keep the player safe and ensure the future of the sport. It’s important that we look after the players and as players we feel protected by that because we know we’re not meant to be in a position where we’re at risk.

“If we follow the guidelines we’ll be okay. And if something does happen and you’re concussed and haven’t passed the test, you won’t play. There is no way around that and that’s a really good thing. Whereas back when my dad was playing, the protocols weren’t there because they didn’t really understand this as much. It’s harder to have protocol on things that they didn’t understand or talk about very much.

Ollie Sleightholme
Sleightholme stands at the top of the try-scorers list, reaching double-figures first (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“I don’t see myself as unlucky. If you feel like you’re unlucky, that will make you  have a negative opinion on the game and ignore the positives. And there are so many more positives. If you start talking about luck you take away agency from yourself. A lot of my concussions have come from me being over the ball and then being cleared out. It’s an occupational hazard I’ve accepted.”

Sleightolme, 23, will become a father for the first time next month. Besides heaping more responsibility onto shoulders that seemingly carry weights designed for older hands, the imminent life changing event has given him an added perspective on those occupational hazards. Has he considered how a serious brain injury might one day impact his role as a parent?

“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t,” he said. “But if you start thinking about it too much you can maybe start not performing as well or even put yourself at more risk. You have to back the best of your abilities and trust the process.

“I feel we have the best care possible now. If we need scans, we get scans. If we need to see a specialist, we go and see a specialist. I think there is something to worry about because if you didn’t you wouldn’t be human. But it doesn’t weigh on my mind and it’s not something I’ve overly worried about.

The lads set me up to score. It’s fully a team effort. We’re all just enjoying playing with each other right now. It’s time spent together, trust in the plan, trust that if we put our game together on the pitch we’ll put teams to the sword.

“I’d be more than happy for my daughter picking up a ball. It’s a game that is great for anyone. It allows you to build relationships that you don’t get in other walks of life. It teaches you how to work in a team. I’d happily see my daughter pursue a career in the sport.”

If she’s anywhere near as good as her father she’ll be alright. In a devastating backline, one marshalled by Fin Smith and supplemented by the punch of Fraser Dingwall in midfield and the potency of Tommy Freeman in the back field, Sleightholme has stood out.

As a wing, across no less than 16 metrics per 80 minutes, measured by OPTA, he ranks in every top 10  in the Premiership this season. Besides topping the try scoring charts, he is number one for try involvements per game (1.5), metres gained (75) and defenders beaten (4.7). He’s second for carries per game (9) and line breaks (2), and is in the top five for tackle evasion percent, off-loads, tackles made, tackles success and turnovers won.

“The lads set me up to score,” he said matter-of-factly. “ It’s fully a team effort. We’re all just enjoying playing with each other right now. It’s time spent together, trust in the plan, trust that if we put our game together on the pitch we’ll put teams to the sword.

Ollie Sleightholme
Sleightholme refuses plaudits and says it’s his job to finish the hard work done by team-mates (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

“We’ve got a new defence coach [Lee Radford] that has come in so we knew that it might take a while to get that sorted. We also had a bit of a mismatch with players out at the World Cup. But now everyone is back and playing, everyone is functioning and trusts and knows the process.”

You can feel it when you watch a game at Franklin’s Gardens –  “the best ground in the league with the best crowd in the country,” according to Sleightholme. There is an air of expectation that after 10 years without a major trophy – excluding the 2019 Premiership Cup – this could finally be their year.

“I think we’ve not performed to the level we’d want to,” Sleightholme said of this trophy-less run, including his own six-year stint at the club. “We know what we’re capable of. We’ve known for a number of years what we’ve been capable of. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves but things are feeling good. We just have to take it game by game.”

Don’t let that last line fool you. That’s no mere cliched athlete speak. Coming from a mind like the one between Sleightholme’s ears, it’s a statement that should be taken as seriously as a head knock.

Comments

2 Comments
T
Timmyboy 70 days ago

It’s been class to see him get a proper run of games injury free & build some form, and blimey his ceiling on performance is high, it’s still unknown how good he can be because he always got injury setbacks which always tend to affect the most explosive athletes. But he’s really showing what he’s made of now, and still only 23 ! Proper chuffed for him . Come on you saints !

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