MY COUNTRY CHILDHOOD
TRAINING WITH HIS RUGBY-PLAYING FATHER IN INNISFAIL HELPED TO SHAPE HIM INTO THE PLAYER HE IS TODAY, BILLY SLATER TELLS CATHERINE MCCORMACK.
Rugby league player Billy Slater reminisces about growing up in the north Queensland town of Innisfail.
GOING HOME TO Innisfail, an hour south of Cairns in far north Queensland, can at times be an overwhelming experience for star National Rugby League (NRL) player Billy Slater. Most vividly, the Melbourne Storm fullback recalls a trip in 2004. He was 21 and had just played a pivotal role in Queensland winning the second game in the State of Origin series. The locals threw a street parade in his honour — complete with a brass band and screaming fans. “In the same town where I was once just another little kid riding his bike or his horse around town, I am now noticed,” Billy writes in his newly released autobiography. Born in Nambour in 1983, Billy and his family moved to Innisfail when he was three years old. His father Ron was a gifted rugby player and coach, and Billy also inherited his father and grandfather, William Slater’s, passion for horses. At 16, he quit school and moved to Sydney to work as a stablehand for Gai Waterhouse. Returning home 18 months later, Billy’s enthusiasm for rugby took hold. Soon after, he left Innisfail again, this time he headed to Brisbane to play under 19s and get spotted by the NRL scouts. In 2002, he signed with the Melbourne Storm and in 2003, scored 19 tries in a sizzling debut season. Today, the 34-year-old is one of rugby league’s most decorated and admired fifigures — a one-club player who has worked tirelessly to reach his peak. Widely considered one of the greatest to ever play the game, Billy’s career achievements include three NRL grand fifinal wins, the Dally M fullback of the year, Melbourne Storm’s player of the year, and the Golden Boots world player of the year. Being part of the jubilant Kangaroos team that won the 2013 World Cup remains a personal highlight, as does his triumphant return to play for Queensland in this year’s State of Origin and his fifirst-ever game for the Storm. “Growing up as a little boy in north Queensland, rugby league was the centre of the community,” Billy says down the line from Melbourne, where the Storm remain fifirm favourites to win this year’s NRL grand fifinal in October. “I always idolised the Queensland players and the NRL players. The day I ran out with a Melbourne Storm jersey on was an extremely proud moment.” However, life hasn’t been all smooth sailing. A number of serious injuries — including two shoulder reconstructions that saw him sidelined for most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons and, in July this year, a concussion that wiped two weeks’ memory — suspensions due to rough conduct and the Storm’s salary cap scandal (which saw the club stripped of all its honours, including two premierships, between 2006 and 2010) have all taken a toll. Has it been worth it? “Yes, that’s the simple answer,” says Billy, who is contemplating retirement and life after footy at the end of the season. “We’ll see how my body’s going, at the moment it’s doing pretty well.” Regardless, Victoria will be home for the forseeable future, with Billy and his wife Nicole, an artist, and their two children, Tyla, 8, and Jake, 6, building a new home on a property just outside Melbourne where they plan to breed thoroughbreds. “Hopefully, one day, we’ll breed a champion,” says Billy. No doubt he’ll make it so.
I WAS BORN in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast on the 18th of June, 1983, to Ron and Judy Slater, and named William Noel after my two grandfathers, William Slater and Noel Simonsen. Sometimes names are a tribute to people who have only a passing or distant influence on your life, but my two grandfathers, both down-to-earth Queenslanders, had a profound impact on my childhood, my passions and the person I am today. I was fortunate to have three strong role models who each gave me a lifelong passion — Grandpa Bill’s horses, Grandad Noel’s music and Dad’s footy. At the same time, Mum and Dad worked tirelessly to make sure we had what we needed and to provide a happy home, even if that home was a different rented house in Innisfail almost every year. If I was to characterise my childhood, I would say our family was never well off but [my sister] Sheena, who is 17 months older than me, and I never felt poor. Mum and Dad met in Mount Isa after Dad went there from Innisfail in 1979 to coach and play for the local rugby league team. Dad was an accomplished player who had brief stints with clubs in Sydney and Brisbane. I was born on the Sunshine Coast but was only three years old when we moved to Innisfail after Dad took the role of captain-coach of his old team, Innisfail Brothers. So Innisfail is home. For about 18 months my parents ran a restaurant in Innisfail called The Downunder Club. When Grandad Noel came to town he would play there and, >
“Fortunately for me, Innisfail was an idyllic place for a boy who liked the outdoors much more than the classroom.”
as usual, Sheena and I would be part of the act. I remember the nights Mum and Dad couldn’t get a babysitter and we would sleep under the tables while customers stayed late for drinks. In a small country town where you knew everyone that wasn’t a problem. We absolutely loved it. But, after a while, trying to combine night-time work with their other jobs and raising two children got too much and they got out of the business. Nothing was handed to Mum and Dad on a plate. In turn, Sheena and I learned to value what we were given. I remember wanting good shorts for my school uniform or the proper cricket gear, but sometimes we had to make do. Sometimes I would go to the local tip with my mates and search for gold, such as an old BMX bicycle or a discarded golf club. Once we found an old car axle with a seat attached at the end, which we towed back home. We rode on it behind a bicycle like a harness-racing driver behind a standard-bred pacer. But even if we had to make something out of nothing, we always understood how hard our parents worked and that we got what we needed. Fortunately for me, Innisfail was an idyllic place for a boy who liked the outdoors much more than the classroom. Most other kids were the same. After school you would throw your bag in your bedroom, grab your bike and take off. Innisfail had creeks and beaches for swimming and fishing, and you wouldn’t get home until dark. Back then, if I wasn’t playing basketball with my best mate Damien you would fifind me in another mate Ben’s backyard playing footy, or down at the creek with a bunch of neighbourhood kids. We lived near the footy ground and I would tag along with my father when he took training. While the team did its warm-ups and drills, I would imitate them on the sidelines. I’m not sure if it prepared me for what Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy had in store down the line, but I loved feeling like I was one of the team. Sometimes I would go on the road with Dad’s teams when they played in Cairns. The memory of the players celebrating a big win on the bus on the way home, singing and playing guitars, has stayed with me. When I was four years old I was already playing with the local juniors. I was always small as a kid but I was sure of myself. Not cocky, just confident I could do anything, whether that was getting on a horse, playing footy or throwing a stick across a river. After I established myself at Melbourne [in 2003], there were a few things I was able to do to repay my parents for the wonderful childhood they gave us and the sacrifices they made. But I think the most precious gift is the pride they take in my football and Sheena’s career as a schoolteacher. This is an edited extract of Billy Slater’s autobiography (Ebury Press, $45), which is on sale now.
FROMROMFR LEFTLEFT Playing to the crowd with his grandfather Noel Simonsen; Billy inhhiinheritedinheritedhisloveofhorsesfromhis othother grandfather, William Slater; with his father, Ron, on the Sunshine Coast. FACINGFA PAGE Billy Slater in his beloved Stastate of Origin Queensland jersey.
FROM LEFT Billy with hihis mothermother, Judy, father, Ron, and older sister, Sheena, at Cooroy train station in the Noosa Hinterland; one of the many football jerseys Billy usually received as a birthday or Christmas gift.