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In researching this piece, I punched ‘Billy Slater grub’ into the search engine and was immediately spoilt for choice. If you have the time and the tolerance, there’s over 314,000 entries to peruse.
Slater is a polarising figure, no doubt. There’s not much of an indifferent middle ground – opposition fans froth at the mouth about his supposed ‘dirty’ play and free ride from the referees, while Melbourne fans understandably will not hear a bad word said about their man.
This week, rugby league legends Brad Fittler and Peter Sterling (among many others) panned the Storm fullback for ‘diving’ against Newcastle. Knights forward Lachlan Fitzgibbon was sin-binned after making minimal contact with Slater after he’d taken a quick tap.
You could tell he would have loved to say otherwise, but Fitzgibbon showed some class in acknowledging Slater got him within the rules, frustrating as they are.
Slater had pulled a similar stunt a few weeks earlier, against Cronulla, getting Luke Lewis a ten-minute breather. So Fitzgibbon couldn’t really say he wasn’t warned.
I despise diving, or, as it’s generally known these days, ‘gamesmanship’. We all do. But I’ve come to better understand it. My first instinct isn’t to criticise a diver, it’s to wonder ‘why would you give them the opportunity to do it?’
It’s not as though the Slater haters can get all high and mighty, either. Cut the act that you’d be mortified if someone on your team did it. Do you think Italian football fans carry any guilt about Fabio Grosso vs Lucas Neill in 2006?
I wouldn’t have thought so – it’s one of those convenient blind spots we all carry as sports fans.
Slater’s definitely no angel. He spent almost half of 2006 suspended after copping seven weeks for kicking John Skandalis in the head, then a few more weeks for a tackle on Ryan Cross. He’s been suspended almost a dozen times and most notably could have cost himself the 2008 Dally M Medal after belting St George Illawarra’s Jason Nightingale and copping a week.
Still, Slater haters claim he’s some kind of ‘protected species’. I’m yet to see any sturdy proof.
Slater haters have been enraged plenty across the years. It’s the feet-first-sliding in to attempt to prevent tries in the 2008 grand final loss to Manly, the high boot to David Klemmer’s face in 2013, the Storm’s 2006-09 salary cap scandal, the constant sledging and niggle, the diving for penalties, the whole package.
The outrage over the Klemmer boot has always bemused me. It was clearly an accident and that’s how the judiciary saw it, too… I guess people see what they want to see when Slater is involved.
But ask yourself this, Slater haters, and be honest – do you want your team’s custodian to be an honest, mild-mannered sweeper, or do you want them to have a mean streak, keen to throw the game straight into your opponent’s face?
Do you think Slater would have made it though 365 games (and counting) for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia if he was a shy, meek, retiring type on the field?
It takes a special kind of mentality to face down the likes of Willie Mason, Jarryd Hayne, Anthony Watmough and the Stewart boys in their prime and not take a backward step.
Slater gives his, and he gets his. That’s the nature of rugby league. It’s not a theatre for the faint of heart and weak of constitution.
He’s been carrying dud shoulders since 2015, his left damaged by a massive impact from former New Zealand Warriors winger Manu Vatuvei (‘The Beast’ certainly did make a habit of destroying Slater when the opportunity presented itself).
The hit he took last year from Canberra’s Sia Soliola knocked him unconscious for over three minutes.
James Graham decided his ear would make a decent entree in the 2012 grand final.
But with all the late hits, low blows and occasional obliterations by rumbling forwards, Slater has kept turning up and ripping in, for over 15 years.
By all indications, the future of the fullback is trending larger. Slater reports in at 5’10 and 88 kilos.
According to their clubs, Tom Trbojevic reports at 6’4 and 102 kilos. James Tedesco is 6’0 and 96 kilos. Jack Wighton is 6’2 and 93 kilos and if he finds himself on the sidelines, he’ll be replaced by Nick Cotric, who’s 6’1 and 98 kilos.
Last Friday night, the NRL’s next superstar, Kayln Ponga (6’1, 92 kilos), broke free down the left wing and a try was coming for all money. All Ponga had to do was get past busted old Billy.
He didn’t. Slater emphatically cut him down, putting him out of bounds with an authority that said “not yet, son”. Ponga could only look at the replay and wistfully laugh to himself.
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Slater is off contract at the end of this year and while he’s made public his thoughts about possible retirement, you’d be a fool if you didn’t want your team to at least check on his availability.
Since he burst on to the scene as a 19-year-old, scoring 19 tries in the 2003 NRL season, he’s supplied some of the great rugby league highlights in the Storm, Maroon and Australian jerseys.
His football CV is almost without peer: Clive Churchill Medals, the Dally M Medal, the Golden Boot award as the world’s best player and countless accolades for himself and his teams.
Off the field, Slater is everything the NRL wants its players to be. He’s an ambassador for the Starlight foundation, a regular visitor to hospitals to meet sick kids, and he runs ‘Billy’s Buddies’, a program for young kids to get into sport.
Just watching him interact with the fans at a game and in public, it’s clear this is a good man who wants to make his influence count for something.
If he played AFL in Melbourne, they would have already placed statues of him on five different sites and named suburbs after him. I’m still not 100 per cent convinced that the city of Melbourne quite understands or appreciates just what it has in Slater.
I’m too young to remember Clive Churchill, Graeme Langlands, Graeme Eadie and their ilk, but I grew up in a golden age for quality fullbacks. I’ve been lucky enough to watch the likes of Garry Jack, Gary Belcher, Darren Lockyer, Brett Mullins, Darius Boyd, Tim Brasher and Andrew Ettingshausen go about their business.
That’s a pretty good list of names.
But Billy Slater is the best fullback I’ve seen by the length of the straight. It’s no contest.
And for all your hate, angst, name calling and lame meme creation, you can’t argue otherwise.