Henry Slade may have represented Exeter Chiefs 69 times, helping Rob Baxter’s men record some impressive results in European and domestic competitions, and scored a try for England at a Rugby World Cup, but, at the age of 22, inspirational is not a word he is used to hearing that often when people describe his career.
That is normally something which is reserved for rugby greats such as Jonny Wilkinson, Rory Underwood and Lawrence Dallaglio and, while Slade is one of England rugby’s brightest prospects, he has plenty of work left to do to achieve what they have.
However, inspirational he is, because when he dotted down for Stuart Lancaster’s side against Uruguay at the City of Manchester Stadium on October 10, he became the first insulin dependent athlete to score a try for England at a Rugby World Cup finals.
And, while he is certainly not the only type one diabetic to make it in professional sport, he is one of very few to have done so in a sport as popular as rugby.
Articles on his success have been shared and celebrated online by the diabetic community – I have come across a few on Facebook myself – and on each occasion people are holding him up as shining of example of what can be achieved and an opponent to those who think that diabetics should be restricted from doing certain jobs or sports.
“It is nice to hear that it is having that effect,” said Slade, who despite his eye-catching ability is one of the more modest and unassuming members of the Chiefs squad.
“I’m just happy to say my side of things and if that helps, then great.”
Slade was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of 18 when he had just signed an academy contract with Exeter Chiefs.
It is a condition normally diagnosed when people are either children or teenagers, which is caused when the body stops producing a hormone called insulin.
Insulin controls the level of sugar, or glucose, in a person’s blood naturally, but diabetics have to inject themselves with it and then monitor their blood sugar levels to make sure they don’t go too high or too low. This can cause problems while playing sport as too high blood sugars can make a person feel lethargic and thirsty, as well as giving them health problems in later life, while too low blood sugars can result in hypoglycemic attacks, which cause a person to tremble, feel confused and eventually lose vision and blackout.
When playing sport, or doing most physical activity, a diabetic’s blood sugar can drop and be hard to control, so Slade admits to initially fearing that being diagnosed with the condition might cut his rugby career short before he had even begun.
However, he had watched his dad John, also a diabetic, cope with the illness very well. Therefore, when the doctors told him that as long as he kept his blood sugar levels stable he could play rugby, he was positive going forward.
“It did help, having that knowledge,” said Slade. “My dad has had it my whole life so I have been around it a while and just seeing that he was able to do what he wanted was really positive for me.
“If I hadn’t seen that, and then all of sudden been given the news that I had diabetes, I would have been a lot more scared.
“Obviously it was massively disappointing and frustrating to get it, but I knew that I could still do what I wanted to do, it was just a matter of keeping tabs on it.”
Slade said he was happy that someone who had just been diagnosed with diabetes could now look to him as a role model.
“It is nice as a diabetic if you know someone that can show that you can do whatever you want to do and if I happen to be that person to other diabetics than that’s great,” he added.
Slade’s rise to the top of the rugby in the UK represents a change in attitude towards diabetes, as well advance in medical treatment, over the past two decades.
Diabetics are still excluded from competing in some sports, such as professional boxing, as well as number of professions.
However, Diabetes UK are campaigning for greater equality and Slade has a simple message for any youngster with the condition that wants to take up sport, especially rugby.
“I would say to them you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Diabetes does not affect how fast you can run, how strong you are, how much weight you can lift.
“If your blood sugars are normal then you are basically a normal, healthy human. You have just got to keep on top of it.”
Slade had plenty of help from the coaches and medical staff at Exeter Chiefs when he told them he was diabetic, but he admits it comes down to the individual and you have to be organised, and determined, to keep things stable.
“Everyone at Exeter Chiefs was really supportive, especially the conditioning staff and the doctors,” said Slade. “They were actually quite excited about it in some ways.
“They did loads of research and found out things that would help me, in terms of controlling it.
“That helped me but, the thing is, it is down to you and the type of person you are and I am a bit OCD about it.
“I’ll try and test myself as much as possible. I probably test my blood about eight to 10 times a day.
“I test myself before each meal and before each training session, whether it’s weights or a field session.
“If I need to have a little jab, I will, and if I need to have a couple of jelly babies, I’ll have a couple of jelly babies.”
That kind of management and dedication might not seem impressive on its own, but it is a constant struggle.
And managing to keep on top of his condition and play professional rugby to the standard Slade does, is deservedly getting noticed by his fellow diabetics.