James Slipper: Closing in on number 139

A special presentation for Brumbies prop James Slipper on his milestone match.

James Slipper’s first reaction to closing in on the lofty Australian record of 139 Test caps says it all about the humble prop and co-captain of the Wallabies.

“A little bit inside me doesn’t want to knock him off because it’s George Gregan. He’s an iconic Wallaby,” Slipper, who sits on 128 Tests, said with a smile.

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Should scheming, manicured halfbacks who commanded endorsement deals and dazzled with flashy passing steal all the thunder from Rugby’s blue-collar toilers in the dark, unseen corners of combat?

Of course not. 

Maybe, Slipper pulls a Mark Taylor. Rather than pass Don Bradman’s highest Test cricket score of 334, the selfless team man within Taylor had him declare when not out on the same score 25 years ago.

More than a decade in Wallaby gold tells its own story of high achievement for Slipper. It’s an amazing longevity in the most brutal and confrontational area of the game.

The forces that ripple through the neck, back, hips and legs at every scrum, on top of the game’s regular collisions, have seen off just about all of his front-row contemporaries from his debut season in 2010.

Meanwhile, Slipper is still signing new contracts, eyeing a fourth Rugby World Cup and finding fresh stimulation under new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones.

The ACT Brumbies environment has been so revitalizing over the past five seasons that he has signed on for 2024-25.

What he’s found in Canberra has also flowed into a productive period for the Wallabies because few of us remember Slipper played no Test Rugby in 2017 or 2018. He made the blunt self-appraisal in 2018 that he would never wear the Wallabies jersey again.

Out of that dark period, he forged a rebirth both on the field and off it. He has played more than 40 Tests in his second coming. At 34, he still has more to give. 

“Honestly, I was close to finishing up (at the end of this year) but I feel I can squeeze more from the sponge,” Slipper said frankly.

“You are a long time retired is a cliché but it’s true. I’ve seen it with Rugby mates who retire. It’s not possible to make a comeback even if they might want to two years later.

“People tell me all the time about ‘139’ and closing in. It’s not something I’m striving for.

“Every game for Australia means a lot to me. If I have more games in me and feel I’m still doing the jersey justice I’m going to do that because I really enjoy playing for my country and with my teammates.”

Lost in the fine print of his ban and mental health break, after he spiralled into taking cocaine in 2018, was one of the contributing reasons to his depression.

He wasn’t coping with a family crisis but also the repetitive losing of the Queensland Reds. As captain, the defeats and that burden were part of the load that affected his mental health. “It was a boiling point. The pressure got to me a fair bit with off field troubles and success not being there on the field,” Slipper reflected.

“Like any athlete, it’s really hard to detach from the result and not bring it home when results are poor. It’s very easy when things are going well.

“It’s been really good to see the Reds find their feet after I left.”

This is no exercise in dredging up the past. Rather, it is showing what unseen forces weigh on professional footballers and how coping takes a conscious process all of its own.

He’s counselled others privately in Rugby with a wise head. 

“I’ve had discussions. It’s well documented I was a good example of what not to do and I changed,” Slipper said.

“My journey is my journey. When you have a tough time, it’s about learning and coming out a better person.”

The grounding each season based in Canberra gives the Gold Coast boy has been invaluable.

Time out might be as simple as packing the fishing rods and heading anywhere between Jervis Bay and Eden for some rock fishing.

Slipper had an opening to invent a 3kg snapper as his prized catch but his honest streak kicked in to declare something closer to 1kg.

“For me, moving to Canberra has been awesome and a big part of the success of the past few years,” he said.

“Moving from the Gold Coast to Canberra was a big step. It was a place I never thought I’d end up because I didn’t necessarily enjoy playing there as the away team.

“Once I moved there I fell in love with it. It’s a good place for a young family and really good for your footy where you are building relationships around that off the field.  

“When you are happy off the field, it flows on to the field, right. Hand in hand.”

He loves being a new dad to May baby Lily and being immersed in that blossoming life with partner Kara Griggs.

Team-mate Nic White sums up how fellow players feel about Slipper.

“He absolutely puts his head in the spokes and puts his body on the line for the team,” White said of Slipper as a Brumby and Wallaby.

“I think the other thing that sums up ‘Slips’ is all those Tests for so few tries.

“Whilst it feels like we are taking the piss out of him, it’s what he’s all about. It’s the no-frills stuff.

“He puts his head where it shouldn’t be, he’ll make the important clean-out not the important carry, he’ll make sure the scrum is prepared. That’s stuff that people and commentators don’t always see but we do.”

Slipper has played under enough coaches to know that Jones has a successful knack for good reasons.

Deliberate chaos is thrown in to get players to think for themselves.

“We have scenarios where we split into two teams at training and have to handle losing players which makes sense with the cards that get thrown around and the HIAs of today’s game,” Slipper explained.

“You might be down a halfback. Who fills in? You have to go from a six-man to a five-man lineout and so on. Things happen in games quickly and Eddie gives us problems to solve on our own under heat.”

Slipper’s three Rugby World Cups have taught him something about chess or rather assembling a good squad.

“Getting some of the old boys back like Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell made a big difference for the 2015 tournament as well as including experienced guys like Cliffy Palu,” Slipper said.

“Someone like Quade Cooper is in that situation now and you’ve got Willy (Skelton) and Richie Arnold to make a difference too. Quade’s just fallen in love with the lifestyle of being a 24-7 athlete.

“He was always extremely gifted but he’s 10 times the player now. He’s a real leader now with what he adds to the players around him and how he calms the team down.”

You can hear the excitement in Slipper’s voice because a Rugby World Cup year is like no other in terms of possibilities.