To Hell And Back
A er losing two seasons to injury, Billy Slater was staring at his rugby league mortality. Now he’s back to being his plain, old Immortal self.
16, 2017: Melbourne Storm supporters love their rugby league team the same way you love yours. They’re pumped when Melbourne wins, and have the cat ducking for cover when their boys are bested. That they wear a far-fromtraditional rugby league colour – purple – rather than your red, blue, gold, cardinal and/or myrtle is neither here nor there.
Further, their fans were devastated that one of the club’s favourite sons, Billy Slater, missed almost two full seasons through horror shoulder injuries. Gutted: in the same way that Johnathan Thurston being missing in action for the Cowboys is killing the Townsville locals a little bit inside each week. All this considered, when Slater finally returned to the field in the early weeks of this season, it was always going to be lump-in-the-throat stuff for Melbourne’s rugby league disciples.
It was round three of the 2017 NRL season. The Storm, coming off wins over the Bulldogs at Belmore Sports Ground and the Warriors at Mt Smart, was in Melbourne for its first home game of the year. Thus, it was the Storm faithful’s first live look at its team since last year’s heartbreaking loss in the GF to Cronulla,
“Even for my debut I probably wasn’tas nervous … being on the sidelines waiting to come on, I felt the challenge was taken out of my hands. I wasn’t as confident.”
so a healthy turnout of more than 16,000 had rocked up to AAMI Park. Slater’s comeback obviously played its part in the gate, too.
He was held on the bench by coach Craig Bellamy for 28 minutes. Finally, with scores locked at 6-6 against the Brisbane Broncos, “Bellyache” pulled the trigger and let Billy loose onto the field.
“I can’t remember another game … even for my debut I probably wasn’t as nervous,” the 34-year-old veteran shares with Inside Sport. Sport.Sport “As a young guy I was always very confident in what I could do; felt like I could overcome any challenge. Whereas coming back from two shoulder reconstructions and being on the sidelines waiting to come on, I felt the challenge was taken out of my hands. I wasn’t as confident. Not knowing whether my shoulder would hold up in that environment certainly made me nervous. “And look, I never contemplated retiring. But the fact my shoulder might never recover to the extent where I could never play rugby league again certainly scared me. That was something that I was fearful of, my body not allowing me to continue to play. “The other thing I remember from that first game back is standing up on the sideline with the interchange card in my hand. The crowd pretty much stood up with me and gave me that physical show of support. It was one of the really emotional moments of my career.” Over the years we’ve watched Slater grow from Billy The Kid into The Future Immortal. With longtime Storm colleague and best mate Cameron Smith very recently clocking up 350 appearances in first grade, Slater’s closing in on the triple-ton himself, and will likely cross the line in the early rounds of next season. At time of writing, that’s the big question: will there be a 2018? On top of his 290-odd NRL games, he’s played 25 times for Australia and 29 for the best Queensland side that
will ever be assembled. He’s won grand finals, Dally Ms, the lot. He’s won World Cups – and lost them. You wonder how there could possibly be any more chapters left on top of everything he’s been through: salary cap dramas, suspensions, and his latest episode where he was hit late and high by Raiders veteran Sia Soliola in a concussion-inducing strike.
A few seasons ago, Slater developed an unfortunate habit of leading with his feet in desperate try-saving tackle situations. His technique – from seasons past, mind you – was dragged back into the argument when Soliola’s punishment was being considered. “Slater did those feet-first tackles, so in a way he deserved the Sia bash” went the disillusioned theorists.
Speaking of chapters, Slater has a new book out, an autobiography put together with the help of respected sports journalist Richard Hinds. Slater has developed into a polarising figure, that’s why it’s an interesting read.
In another book, released back in 2010 and called The Top 10 of Rugby League, respected rugby league historians Alan Whiticker and Ian Collis ranked everything: the winningest clubs, best matches, you name it. Their list of the game’s best fullbacks was spine-tingling: Churchill, Langlands, Lockyer, Les Johns, Eadie, Barnes, Thornett, Carlson, McMillan and Charles “Chook” Fraser.
There’s a growing belief that Slater is the best fullback to have ever played the game. How’s that for a polariser? It’s absolutely pointless comparing eras in an ever-changing game such as rugby league, as Collis himself told this very magazine earlier this year, but what we can do is analyse how Slater has grown into – again, arguably – one of the best-ever No.1s.
“The first time I played fullback was in the NRL,” Slater says. “It’s a position that just found me. I’d always played in the halves or at hooker growing up.
“When I went to Norths in Brisbane, the feeder club for the Melbourne Storm, I actually found myself playing in the centres. I played there and on the wing. I got the opportunity to come down to Melbourne. Robbie Ross got injured in the pre-season, therefore a spot came up at fullback. That was my position in my debut NRL game and I’ve pretty much played there ever since.”
The position found him – it’s a wonderful thought. There were already plenty of exciting no.1s on the scene at the time of his first-grade arrival: Anthony Minichiello and pre-positional-switch Darren Lockyer quickly come to mind. But the perfect Storm would eventually
Billy The Kid, pictured during his debut NRL season in 2003, quickly found his feet in the fullback role for the Storm.
Storm veteran Robbie Ross helped Slater settle into the No. 1 jersey.
With Craig Bellamy in 2007, who taught Slater all about work rate and positional play.