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Saint-Etienne: There is a long and distinguished list of Wallabies who have been fortunate enough to feature at two Rugby World Cups. Some have even managed three.
In 2018, George Gregan was the only Australian to represent the Wallabies four times at rugby’s centrepiece tournament.
That same year, if you’d told James Slipper he would go to another two World Cups, he’d have thought you were mad.
The well-liked prop was in a dark place. His mother’s cancer diagnosis sent him into a downward spiral that ended with a ban for taking an illicit substance.
With 86 appearances for his country, including a World Cup final, Slipper was proud of what he’d achieved and no one would have begrudged the Queenslander for throwing in the towel.
Some thought he had.
James Slipper ahead of the Rugby World Cup in France. Credit: Getty
On Sunday (Monday, 1.45am, AEST), another chapter will be added to the remarkable James Slipper story when the 34-year-old runs out for the Wallabies and becomes just the third man to play at four Rugby World Cups, following Adam Ashley-Cooper’s entry to the illustrious club in 2019.
Who better to ask than Gregan and Ashley-Cooper about the indelible mark Slipper will leave on Australian rugby when he eventually does hang up the boots.
Maybe the trio could organise a long lunch every four years to trade a few World Cup yarns?
“At this stage, it won’t be a big table, but I’d certainly welcome a lunch because it’s always nice to be amongst the company of people that have achieved similar milestones from different eras,” Ashley-Cooper said. “It’s pretty amazing, to be fair, for a big unit. It’s a huge achievement.”
James Slipper at the (from left) 2011, 2015, 2019 and 2023 Rugby World Cups.Credit: Getty
Gregan can’t speak highly enough of Slipper, who also donned a gold jersey at the 2011, 2015 and 2019 World Cups.
“It’s an amazing achievement; he’s a special Wallaby player,” Gregan said.
“You always knew there was something pretty special about him in terms of his work rate and how he could play the full 80 minutes
“He’s just been very consistent. I think that’s a big part of his longevity. I’ve known Slips for a number of years … and he’s always been the same. He’s really welcoming – ‘Great to see you George’, shakes your hand and wants to chat. He wants to know more about the person on the other side of the conversation. That rubs off on people.
“He’s a real caring person who everyone wants to have in your team. Slips is a winner.”
There are some similarities between the trio of decorated players.
All have played for the Brumbies, made their debuts for their country at 21 years of age, played under Eddie Jones at international level and have run out in a World Cup final.
“I’m not sure what his back thinks about four World Cups,” Ashley-Cooper said with a laugh. “I couldn’t be happier for the bloke. There is no one better in the game, off the back of his journey, that deserves it more.
“He’s the Gold Coast ironman. I enjoyed playing with him, enjoyed spending time with him and having a beer with him. I don’t think there’s a bloke out there who wouldn’t say the same.
Michael Hooper and James Slipper.Credit: Getty
“It’s a great story, particularly for the ones close to him who went through those hardships.”
This weekend’s match against Fiji will be Slipper’s 132nd outing in a gold jersey. He returns to the side after missing Wallabies’ opener against Georgia due to a foot injury.
In a match-day program interview earlier this year, Slipper was asked about the possibility of breaking Gregan’s record of 139 Tests as a Wallaby.
“A little bit inside me doesn’t want to knock him off because it’s George Gregan. He’s an iconic Wallaby,” Slipper said.
When told of those remarks, Gregan said it typified Slipper’s character.
The 1999 World Cup winner doesn’t expect to have that record forever, given Slipper, who recently became a father, has re-signed with the Brumbies and Australian rugby until 2025.
“That’s just Slips,” Gregan said. “Records are there to be broken and I couldn’t think of a better person than Slips going past [my record].
“He’s evolved his game. You don’t play more than 100 Tests if you don’t evolve your game. I wish him all the best. If he doesn’t get it this year, if he stays fit and healthy, he’ll go past it. I couldn’t think of a better Wallaby to do it.”
There is a strong chance this will be Slipper’s last World Cup. He will want to make the most of every carry and every scrum in France.
Adam Ashley-Cooper in action for the Wallabies at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Credit: AP
“[In a fourth World Cup] you treat it like every game matters,” Gregan said. “That was my feeling going into my last World Cup, going into 2007. You want to do everything you can to contribute to the team’s performance on that stage. There’s also that finality, knowing it’s going to be your last World Cup, so you want to put everything into it.”
There are few bigger fans of Slipper than coach Eddie Jones, who loves the prop’s versatility and tenacity.
“It’s a remarkable achievement to play in four World Cups,” Jones said this week. “He started off as a tight-head then volunteered to go to loose-head. He’s volunteering to go back to tight-head this week.
“It’s a real testament to his courage, resilience, to how much he loves the game and he loves playing for the Wallabies. We think on Sunday he’ll play a pretty big game for us.”
Ashley-Cooper will be watching the Wallabies from home in Sydney, hoping his great mate Slips helps Australia get over the line.
“No doubt nowadays Slips is warming up for the warm-up,” Ashley-Cooper said with a laugh.
It’s been quite a journey, and it’s not over yet.
Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match streaming ad-free, live and in 4K UHD with replays, mini matches and highlights available on demand.
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