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Mr Slater: Reflections on a golden age

By Tom Oliver

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late September, and a light drizzle is coming down outside as I sit in the Economics Department office. The evenings are growing darker and the days shorter in the UK, while in Japan the weather is still warm, and a festival of Rugby is just beginning. 

The opening weekend sees New Zealand defeat South Africa in a closely fought game; Namibia, most of whose players juggle international rugby with full-time jobs, line up against Italy. Mr. John Slater, like many of the Namibian XV who perform with bravery and spirit but lose 47-22 to Italy, faced just the same pressures in his own career, working full-time throughout his rugby-playing days. 

All in all, he played at Twickenham three times for Blackheath – one of England’s traditional rugby powerhouses – toured South America with London Scottish, and played at the Stoop Memorial Ground for Loughborough University. He has been at Hampton for over two decades, during which time he has taught Economics and coached the 2nd XV from 1998 until 2016. 

“[I always aimed] to coach a form of rugby that I felt was the most effective, and to make people play a brand of rugby that is open and challenging and reliable,” he answers when I ask about his reasons for becoming a coach. He tells me that he did not want to coach a style of rugby that was based around bulk and power – a style which, in his opinion, is encouraged by the tide of professionalism. 

I can already see how strongly Mr. Slater feels about the way rugby should be played – and visions of the fast-paced, off-loading game employed at the top level by teams such as Racing 92 spring to mind. “Rugby is about possession,” Slater says. “I like watching teams who play in a good spirit and a sporting style.” 

Slater played mainly in the 1980s, at a time which he feels was the golden age of rugby. “There were lots of established clubs with good grounds and good players, and you could play hard as an amateur and still have a job at a high standard,” he says.  “The camaraderie was fantastic – my Blackheath friends are friends for life.” 

As I think about this statement, I feel that the camaraderie in all team sport, no matter which, is absolutely brilliant, and that is one of the reasons that I personally love sport. Despite the game having become professional since Slater retired, this is one of the few things that I think has not changed, and probably never will change about rugby union. 

The fact that Slater remains friends with his Blackheath teammates and even goes on a yearly cricket tour with them is testament to the team spirit ignited by all sport, and the bonds formed between team members simply through playing together, as well as the team spirit that was – and still is – possessed by that 1980s Blackheath team that Slater was a part of.

At the end of our Interview, when I ask Mr. Slater who he thinks will be challenging for the Webb-Ellis Cup, he says that England’s style, as well as South Africa’s, relies too much on sheer physicality, and is too simplistic to win the World Cup. 

He also thinks that Wales can be very good if they employ their most open style. When I ask him who he thinks will be lifting the trophy in Yokohama on the 2nd of November, he simply replies with three words. “The All Blacks.”

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