It’s official: Billy Slater will retire from rugby league this year, and there is no disputing he leaves the game as one of the top three fullbacks of all time.
Comparing eras, even for those who have seen them all, is always a tricky – some would say impossible – task.
I didn’t see Clive Churchill or Graeme Langlands play, but there is little doubt Billy Slater is the best fullback we have seen step on a rugby league field since that duo.
With the superstar announcing today he would hang up his boots at the end of the season, debate about just where he ranks in the list of all-time greatest fullbacks – even all-time greatest players – is sure to follow.
There is little doubt Slater will one day become an Immortal alongside fellow Queenslanders Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston, but there is something about Billy the Kid which puts him on a pedestal, even in front of those other greats.
His vision in support play, individual creativity, pace, acceleration and ability to make something out of nothing or flip a game on its head makes him the best.
I often go back to the 2016 NRL grand final when I talk about the value of Slater. The porch light would still be on in the Shire if Slater didn’t miss that game through injury.
The Storm needed the influence of the fullback. His vision in attack, his defensive awareness and most importantly, needed his communication and leadership at the back.
Without Slater, Melbourne leaked tries that they wouldn’t have ordinarily let in, even under pressure.
It was no small surprise that, upon Slater’s return in 2017 after missing all of 2016 through injury, the Storm were a better side.
2017 will go down as one of the most dominant runs in NRL history. You could have awarded Melbourne the premiership halfway through the season and no one would have batted an eyelid.
Slater was told he would never come back to be the player he once was. But he emphatically proved the doubters wrong, knocking even the most pessimistic among us to the ground and in doing so, stamping his name in rugby league’s history books, ensuring no one would remember him as a player who let his legacy fade.
The only change for Melbourne in 2017 from the previous year, aside from added experience and confidence for a few youngsters, was the return of Slater.
On grand final day, the Cowboys simply didn’t stand a chance. While North Queensland were understrength, it didn’t matter who the Storm came up against. They were going to win and win well, as they had done all season.
Close games are where Slater has made his name over the years though, picking the correct options and shutting the opposition down with his staggering ability to read plays at the back.
Slater’s talents have been on full display at club, state and international level over his careers and, while he hasn’t been quite at the top of his game in 2018, it hasn’t mattered. He’s still playing excellent football and you can bet your dollar that, come finals time, he, alongside Cameron Smith, will find a way to have the Storm in fine form and pushing for back-to-back premierships.
His career accolades are plentiful. He has played more than 300 first grade games, represented Queensland on 31 occasions and played for Australia a further 30 times.
What makes those numbers even more impressive was that, once he was picked, he was never in danger of being dropped.
Adding to the raw numbers, he was named in the Storm’s team of the decade, won the Dally M medal, was named fullback of the year on three occasions, has been named Clive Churchill medalist twice, won the Wally Lewis Medal in 2010 and again this year, and to cap it all off was player of the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.
It’s staggering to think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He has deserved nearly every accolade that’s come his way.
Is Slater better than Churchill and Langlands, the two men generally rated as the best fullbacks ever?
We will never know. They will never play against each other and so the debate is almost not worth having. Comparing eras is the most futile task there is in rugby league – or any sport.
What we do know is that Slater is the best fullback of this generation. No one will come close to outclassing him – even though he was once told he was too small to make it in the top grade.
Slater proved those doubters wrong – and others on many occasions. He well and truly conquered the NRL.
While I’ll be happy to see the back of him at Origin level, there is no question the NRL is poorer for the retirement of Billy the Kid.