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.

Country Style - - CONTENTS -

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.

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