On Sunday night I wanted to send rugby league and its platoon of “what’s wrong with a bloke havin’ a bit of fun, he’s not hurting anyone?” fans to their room, lock the door, throw away the key, and have as little as possible to do with them.
At least until my head stopped hurting.
Then I remembered the next night I was going to tick an item off my sporting bucket list.
I was going to be working as a sideline reporter for ABC Grandstand’s radio broadcast of the NRL game between St George Illawarra Dragons and Melbourne Storm at Wollongong.
Two teams struggling to find regular winning form, so what’s the big deal you ask?
The big deal for me was it would be my first chance to observe from close quarters the player I regard as the best I’ve ever seen in rugby league: Billy Slater.
Naturally I’ve seen Slater play many, many times, mostly on TV, often from the grandstands, but never from the sidelines and, on this occasion, the sidelines happened to be the very narrow, up-close-and-personal confines of WIN Stadium in Wollongong. So, despite the icy conditions I was looking forward to the experience.
It turned out to be not such a happy occasion for the Storm. They were not at their best and went down to the Dragons 24-12, but it didn’t stop me enjoying my privileged position watching Slater.
He was one of the Storm’s best, scored the 166th try of his career (he’s now 14 tries behind the second-most prolific try scorer in Australian rugby league, Steve Menzies) and while there were passages of play where the Storm looked unaccountably sluggish, that’s not a word you would ever, on his worst day, associate with the 31-year-old fullback whose boundless energy makes it still justifiable to refer to him as ‘Billy the Kid’.
Watching on television doesn’t give you the full picture of what Billy Slater’s contribution to a game is. The tight TV camera angles focus on what’s happening on the ball. A lot of what Slater does is off the ball. When the team is defending he’s alert, marshalling the troops, keeping an eye on the defensive structure and shouting instructions.
But it’s not like he’s instructing and not doing. When Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop made a break up the centre early in the game, the crunching sound of the ferocious ball-and-all hit Slater put on him could be heard, and almost felt, from where I was sitting.
When the Storm have the ball, Slater is still in organising mode. Pointing, shouting, calling plays and when he slots into the backline he does so with a precise purpose – there’s something on, and he might be going to help set it up or to finish it off. Or a bit of both. Or, on occasion, he might be just keeping the defence nervous by ‘looming’ as the great Jack Gibson used to call it. (I heard he used to keep a stat for ‘looms’, but I digress…)
When Slater chimes into the attack he’s not just joining in on the off-chance that something might be on. When Slater gets involved something is on and quite often it looks like he’s called it.
Perhaps he was doing more of that the other night, given the absence of Cooper Cronk, but if you glance back through the Storm stats for any game this season, Slater has his hands on the ball generally 40 or more times, which is close to the same number as either the halfback or five-eighth. On Monday night he had the ball in his hands 45 times, pivot Ben Hampton received the ball 48 times, and halfback Ben Roberts 35 times.
Slater also does a darting run out of dummy half as good as any hooker or winger in the game and his goal-line defence is extraordinary. His ability to flip a would-be tryscorer on his back (nearly did it the other night to the powerful Josh Dugan) is second to none and during his career he’s saved an extraordinary number of tries by getting under the ball over the tryline and preventing the carrier from grounding it.
It shows incredible strength, but more importantly attention to technical detail from a man small enough to have formerly ridden trackwork for racehorse trainer Gai Waterhouse.
Sure, you can say none of that worked on Monday night and the Dragons’ desperate defence can take a lot of credit for that, but even into the dying minutes of the game you could see Slater scheming, plotting and most of all, working to find a way to make something happen.
While I understand how impressive Slater’s main rivals for representative fullback honours can be, there are still games that you come away from after Souths or Parramatta have lost and hear fans saying, “If only Inglis or Hayne could’ve been involved a bit more.”
That’s what makes Slater still the standout. He’s always involved. It does lead to him making more mistakes, but as his coach Craig Bellamy said in a recent column for The Australian his mistakes come from having a go.
No doubt the day will come where one of Slater’s younger rivals will take over the green and gold jersey with the number 1 on the back. Greg Inglis is 27, Jarryd Hayne is 26 and ‘The Kid’ will be the old guy eventually, but I for one am not in a hurry for that day to arrive.
Backtracking now to the comment I made about him being the best player I have ever seen. Perhaps you thought I really meant the best fullback I’ve ever seen. No, I meant the best player. But let’s start with fullbacks.
Lots of pundits with better credentials than me rank Slater the best fullback they’ve seen. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that, and my earliest memories of league fandom start with being a primary-schooler who adored Ken Thornett. I’ve seen and admired quite a few number ones since then.
Les Johns was one of the reasons I became a Canterbury supporter. I remember Changa Langlands as a centre and a fullback (and yes, by the way, Josh Dugan does put me in mind of him quite a bit). I remember the battles between Graham Eadie, Garry Dowling and Russell Fairfax for fullback supremacy in the 1970s. I recall taking a while to get used to Greg Brentnall having usurped Dowling’s position at Belmore by the late ’70s but then marvelling at his ability under the high ball and his kicking skills.
And there was Garry Jack with his fierce competitiveness, Brett Mullins making witches hats of defenders with his elusive runs, the class of Gary Belcher, the young and gifted Darren Lockyer starting out as Broncos fullback when he looked like a 12-year-old…
I’ve probably missed some out. But I have seen them and marvelled at their abilities.
But Slater’s got them covered in all departments. We’re deep into the realms of opinion here, but I can’t see an area of the game where any of the star fullbacks I’ve mentioned are superior to Slater.
He can bust open a defence like Eadie, Thornett or Langlands, read the play and set up others like a Belcher or Lockyer, defend like Jack, judge where to turn up in support like Johns, handle the high ball like Fairfax or Brentnall and run tryline to tryline beating defenders with a combo of devastating acceleration, evasive skills and sheer sustained pace to score like Mullins.
That makes him not just the best fullback the modern game has ever seen, but someone who is equal to or better than every other fullback in living memory in whatever the strongest facet of their play was.
I don’t know that any other star player in any other position on the field has his major all-time rivals covered in such a way.
For example, many people rate Andrew Johns the greatest of all time in any position. My response to that would be that, in most departments of halfback play, Andrew Johns was better or equal to other great halfbacks. But could he turn a game with quicksilver brilliance and pace like Steve Mortimer in his prime? No. Did he really have Ricky Stuart covered in tactical kicking ability? I’m not sure.
You can work your way through the other candidates and test my theory along those lines, or you can just decide I’m delusional. I don’t care.
But I know for the last 10 years whenever Billy Slater has been involved in a game I’m keen to watch because there’s always the chance to see something extraordinary happen. And if it doesn’t happen, you at least have the non-stop pleasure of watching him try to make something extraordinary happen.
Finally, may I suggest that if Slater had played for a Sydney club, or the Brisbane Broncos, and been on free-to-air television every other week rather than for a non-traditional club that a lot of rugby league watchers have made up their minds to hate, more people would be rating him as highly as I do.