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Cricket lovers often wax lyrical about which batsman they’d like taking guard if their life were on the line. But if I needed a current Australian sporting champion to save my soul from oblivion, it’d be Billy Slater.
With two tries against the Parramatta Eels on Sunday, Slater quietly cruised past Terry Lamb and drew equal with Andrew Ettingshausen as the third-highest try-scorer in Australia’s elite rugby league competition.
The Storm fullback’s tally is now 165, putting him behind only Steve Menzies (180) and Ken Irvine, whose tally of 212 tries has looked untouchable since he set the mark in 1973.
The Irvine record sits just below the highest winning margin record – a 91-6 humiliation of Canterbury-Bankstown by the St George Dragons in 1935 – as the mark most likely to stand for eternity. In saying that, the Raiders and Sharks outfits of 2014 are showing enough to suggest that anyone from 13th place upwards could raise the bat for a century if they don’t get bogged down in the middle overs this season.
Slater has every right to be playing as poorly as the aforementioned shadows of football teams. He suffered a shoulder injury in a bruising opener to the 2014 State of Origin series. He hobbled off the field in a Rugby League World Cup quarter final last year with a left knee injury which eventually required surgery. His right knee is routinely strapped together before each match.
He’s too old, too slow, say the pundits. A myth. In decline.
But, as the kids would say, “Haters gonna hate.”
Now well into adulthood, but looking as boyish as any 31-year-old who cops elbows to the face at work could hope to, Slater is raging against the dying light. The pundits might be half right, but there’s nothing fictional about the way he is throwing himself into his work in 2014. Short of a gallop early-on following pre-season surgery, he’s paced his run superbly as the Storm round the bend mid-pack and prepare for an(other) unlikely finals tilt.
If it wasn’t for opposite number Jarryd Hayne playing like he was covered in spider-coated spiders in Game 1 of Origin 2014, Slater would’ve been named best player on the park. Hayne was mercurial but Slater was inspirational as he aimed himself at half-gaps that previously wouldn’t have closed on him, but still poked his nose out the other side more often than not.
He delivered more of the same on one leg at Old Trafford when the Kangaroos schooled the Kiwis in the Rugby League World Cup final, only missing out on man of the match honours because organisers presumably deemed it easier to use the envelope with Johnathan Thurston’s name on it for the fourth time that tournament.
Against the Newcastle Knights in the semis last year, his Melbourne Storm floundering against a defensive line that had dug in for the second-half siege, Slater tried to turn the match on his own. Once, twice every set he was darting, probing; launching himself at, through and above the opposition as the ESP link he shares with Messrs Cronk and Smith completed calculations which would’ve produced a positive result had those legs been just a couple of years less battle-scarred.
Contrast Slater’s irrepressible nature with rival superstar fullback Greg Inglis, who can dispose of equally gigantic humans like he’s dusting cobwebs, as he did with this year’s try for the ages against the Broncos. But when his team needs him to deliver a momentum-swinging play – when the Maroons were misfiring in Game 1 of Origin 2013, for example, or the Rabbitohs capitulated in the preliminary final last year – GI is rarely the man to provide.
In cricketing parlance he’s a flat-track bully, albeit a particularly brutal one.
Fellow contender Hayne is more influential than Inglis, if equally enigmatic. Hayne performs that rare party trick of looking like he’s in cruise control whether he’s about to burst through a gap or just plodding along with no real intent. He’s either making the opposition look like they’re several age divisions below him in schoolboys or going easy on them because nobody likes a bully.
Billy Slater can’t quite impress himself on a game like Wally Lewis, Andrew Johns or Hayne in his current pomp. He’s never been one to regularly hoist a team on his back and carry them to victory. He’s had the odd brain snap involving rival players and using his legs as weapons, and probably should leave the zingers to comedians after suggesting an opponent fighting depression should go and have a cry in his room.
But at his best, he’s half a rung below the two rugby league Immortals I’ve had the good fortune to see in action. And should he defy time, the odds and the haters, to claim Irvine’s record, his name will go close to living forever.
Why wouldn’t you want him in your corner?