Sport Rugby League Billy Slater: The man who changed rugby league forever

Billy Slater: The man who changed rugby league forever

Slater scores on the night that changed his life. Photo: Getty
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It was the moment when Billy Slater announced himself to the world.

The former trackwork jockey, at the tender age of 20, had already scored a terrific try in game two of the 2004 State of Origin series.

But the jaw-dropping piece of brilliance Slater produced in the 62nd minute of that famous night at Suncorp Stadium will live with anyone who was lucky enough to see it.

It all started with a kick from Queensland great Darren Lockyer that Slater – who announced his retirement from rugby league on Wednesday – collected at pace.

Somehow, Slater continued to gather speed, before wrong-footing opponent Anthony Minichiello with an inch-perfect kick that he later gathered at full speed to score one of the great Origin tries.

It was speed, foresight, skill and sheer audacity all rolled into one, traits that would become the hallmarks of Slater’s glittering career.

And his life would never be the same.

Just two days later, he sat in a BMW convertible and was paraded through his home town of Innisfail, in far north Queensland.

“Hundreds of people lined the streets cheering while I waved to them from the back of the car like the Queen,” Slater wrote in his autobiography.

Just two years earlier, Slater packed up his car and drove 20 hours down to Melbourne to chase his dream.

It took four months for Storm to offer him a deal but he repaid their faith, scoring 19 tries in 2003 in a stunning debut season.

His Origin heroics soon followed, as did 20 tries in 21 NRL appearances in 2005, and the team glory and individual awards barely stopped from there in a truly outstanding career.

As Slater’s standing in the game grew, so did his profile.

With a beaming smile that could light up any room, ability to do the outrageous on the field and his relaxed, easygoing manner, Slater became hot property in the media, no mean feat in AFL-besotted Melbourne.

And slowly but surely, it translated into genuine interest as Storm started to build a brand that is now one of the most powerful in Australia.

“There would be nowhere near as many kids playing rugby league in Victoria if Billy Slater hadn’t have played for the Melbourne Storm … he has been a great ambassador,” coach Craig Bellamy said on Wednesday.

Slater’s greatest legacy will be the way he has changed the game, though.

That famous kick-and-chase Origin try gave him the confidence to continue to chance his arm at the top level and his ability to turn defence into attack revolutionised the fullback position.

In a similar manner to the way Adam Gilchrist’s batting transformed expectations of wicketkeepers in cricket, Slater set the new benchmark and dragged the game along with him.

“The high ball really came in the ’80s as a bit of an excuse if sides hadn’t scored from the first few tackles,” Queensland and Australia great Wally Lewis told The New Daily.

“It put enormous pressure on fullbacks, but Billy was extremely confident under the ball.

“He is simply one of those guys who turned difficult situations into freakish attacks and he did it time after time after time, also making a mockery of attempts to tackle him.”

Is he the greatest fullback of all time? Lewis said it is always hard to compare eras, but that he “hasn’t seen anyone that’s better”.

And that is a fair endorsement from the man they call ‘The King’.

Slater is far from a flashy, outrageously skilled player, though.

He is meticulous with his preparation and is renowned for his “incredible” ability to organise his teammates in front of him.

“He’s one of the great students I’ve ever had … he watches more footy than any other player at our club,” Bellamy told the NRL website in May.

“He constantly watched other fullbacks, other games … a lot of his learning has been self-taught.”

In the same interview, Bellamy was asked if Slater watched more video footage than him. “By a mile,” he responded.

It was a comment that said it all about Slater, still desperate to improve in his final year in the game.

And while his retirement is a sad day for the sport, rugby league fans can at least take some joy in the fact Slater’s career could have ended in 2016, after he needed two shoulder reconstructions in as many years.

“I wasn’t ready to finish then … I said it to the boys this morning – ‘that would have really sunk me’,” he said.

Slater fought on, though, returning to help Storm to success in the 2017 NRL Grand Final.

There might be one last premiership left in him yet.

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