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.

Inside Sport - - EDITOR'S LETTER - BY JAMES SMITH

THURS­DAY,MARCH

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.

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