With the third State of Origin match to take place this Wednesday, this means that longtime custodian, Billy Slater, will pull on the Maroons jersey for the final time in his career, having announced his retirement from representative football prior to this series. The series itself may be a dead rubber, but that will only serve to fire up the Queenslanders, who will be desperate to salvage some lost pride, while unleashing fury on New South Wales. Moreover, they will want to send Slater out a winner in his final match, as well as preventing a whitewash from occurring.
Prior to the series this year, Slater announced that he would hang up the representative boots at the conclusion of the series. This means that after this match, the last remaining member of Queensland’s significantly feared and respected spine will join good mates, Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, all of whom called time on their respective representative careers. Slater may be retiring, which means that the Maroons will lose the attacking spark that he abundantly supplied since his debut in 2004, however they will have a more than able replacement in the future, in the form of boom youngster Kalyn Ponga. For now, we shall focus on the tribute to one of the all-time greats of Queensland and Origin in general.
Since Slater made his debut with the Melbourne Storm in 2003, we could all feel that he was something special, despite his diminutive stature. The former jockey from Innisfail in Northern Queensland grew up supporting the North Queensland Cowboys. Not very surprising when you consider the passion displayed in that part of Australia, as well as the fact that it is in the heart of Cowboys country. This is a man who, at the time, would only make it as far as the Innisfail district sides, but would never have the chance to represent North Queensland. It was only after he was forced to make the journey down south in a rusty old car to Brisbane, where he had the opportunity to make a name for himself. When he did reach the Queensland capital, he would then play for a club, which turned out to be a feeder club for the Storm. This was without a doubt a stepping stone to great things for the man known as “Billy the Kid”. His debut season for the Storm was nothing short of sensational, as he scored 19 tries, to help the Storm become perennial finalists, after a disappointing two-year absence.
A Maroon debut
Like his long time Storm teammate and fellow Queenslander, skipper Cameron Smith, Slater would not make his debut at Origin level until his next season. However, unlike good mate Smith, who debuted for the Maroons in 2003, Slater would make his debut with the Maroons in 2004. He would start all three games on the wing; a position which he first played in his debut season with the Storm. Although he was slightly less than electrifying in the first game of the 2004 Origin series, his next game saw him score two tries; one of which was nothing short of stupendous. With the Maroons trailing 12-10, Darren Lockyer put in a grubbing kick, which Slater would latch onto. He would then chip over stunned Blues fullback, Anthony Minichiello, before regathering the ball, to score a truly memorable try. It would send the packed Suncorp Stadium crowd into delirium.
It proved to be crucial, as the Maroons would win that match, 22-18. He would the score a try in the deciding match that year, but was powerless to prevent the Blues from winning the match and the series. In the series the following season, Slater would play in his preferred position of fullback. Unfortunately, he would only play tow out of the three matches that series. The reason was that he was dropped for the deciding match, in favour of Cowboys custodian, Matt Bowen. With all due respect to Bowen, as sensational as he is, he’s not quite on the same level as Billy Slater. And thus, Slater’s absence from the decider proved to be crucial, as the Maroons were trounced in front of their disappointed fans, 32-10. This meant the Maroons would lose a third consecutive Origin series.
The periods from 2006 to 2010, would end up being bittersweet years for Billy the Kid, as he gelled in well with Smith, and then-newly anointed halfback, Cooper Cronk at the Storm. Their lethal combination would see them not only be labelled as the “Big 3”, but would prove to be highly instrumental in the Storm absolutely dominating the NRL in those years, to claim three consecutive minor premierships (2006-2008), as well as make successive grand final appearances(2006-2009). Slater would also win the Clive Churchill medal in 2009, as the man of the match in that year’s grand final. They would also win only two of these grand finals (2007 and 2009), as well as a World Club Challenge trophy in 2010. Unfortunately, all of the efforts of Slater and co would amount to nothing, as the Storm (in 2010) would be stripped of their titles and minor premierships between 2006 and 2009, along with their World due to salary cap breaches. This meant that all of Slater’s achievements for the Storm in that period would end up being moot.
A mixed experience
On the representative level from 2006 to 2010, there were more mixed feelings to be experienced for Slater. Whilst the Maroons would begin their dynasty from 2006, until arguably this season, Slater would miss both the 2006 and 2007 series due to suspensions and injuries. He would then make a return to the Maroons ranks in 2008, and boy did his presence prove crucial. His lone try that series came at a critical time in the deciding match in Sydney. With less than 10 minutes remaining, then Maroons, and current Cowboys playmaker Johnathan Thurston would throw one of his trademark dummies to bamboozle the Blues defence. Thus he was able to slice through and would find Slater on his inside, who was unmarked. Slater would then race away to score a converted try under the posts. This would not only win the match for the Maroons, but also the series that year. He would also make his debut for the national team in 2008, where he played in the Anzac test that year. Moreover, he would go on to represent the Australian Kangaroos in the 2008 World Cup.
That tournament was bittersweet for him, a he scored consecutive hat-tricks against the likes of England and Fiji, while also scoring man of the match honours. In the World Cup final, whilst he would set up Australia’s first two tries, he made an enormous misjudgment in that he threw a wild back pass, which fell into the arms of Kiwi playmaker, Benji Marshall, who would race away and score a try. This proved crucial, as the Kiwis would go on and win the tournament. Despite that moment of madness, Slater was rewarded for his efforts in the tournament, by being named Player of the Tournament, while finishing as the top try scorer. He would find some redemption in 2009, as he not only helped Queensland win yet another Origin series, but would taste Four Nations glory for the first time. Despite the salary cap dramas clouding the Storm in 2010, Slater would not only be instrumental in the Maroons claiming another Origin series, but also in ensuring they would do so perfectly, by achieving a series clean sweep, despite Storm coach Craig Bellamy being at the helm for New South Wales.
For the next five years (2011-2015), not only would Slater continue to terrorise the defences of the Blues and other nations, he would be a regular at state and national level, missing very few matches due to injury (once for the Maroons - 2012, and the entire Four Nations tournament in 2014). He would also continue to do the same at club level for the Storm, whilst experiencing further glory for the Maroons, as they continued their success until 2014, where their remarkable streak would end. For Slater, he would experience further glory in a national level, in which he would win another Four Nations tournament in 2011. Moreover, he would go a long way to exorcising the demons of the 2008 World Cup final behind him, by partaking in Australia’s victorious World Cup campaign in 2013. Although Billy the Kid would score less tries, and would not necessarily play every match, his involvement in the squad was no less imperative and valuable. He would help ensure the Kangaroos would be undefeated leading into the final, as they would put cricket scores against their opponents, while not conceding any tries since their tight opening win over England. In the final, the Aussies ran rampant over the shell-shocked Kiwis at Manchester’s Old Trafford, with Billy Slater among the try scorers. This gave Slater his first taste of World Cup glory.
Driving a stake into Blues hearts
Whilst he would play two of the three matches for the Maroons in 2015, he missed the deciding match, won 52-6 by the Maroons. This was undoubtedly bittersweet for Slater, as he would have loved to have been out there to help his beloved Maroons further drive a stake into the Blues’ hearts. He would miss the remainder of the 2015 season, due to a shoulder injury. Although he would make a return in the opening round of the 2016 NRL season, he would miss the entire season that year due to further troubles with his shoulder. This meant he would miss the 2016 State of Origin series, as well as Australia’s victorious Four Nations campaign, and the Storm’s grand final loss to the Sharks. This injury meant that there were doubts as to whether the rugby league world would ever see Slater grace the field again.
However, any doubts were quashed when he returned in round 3 of the 2017 season against the Broncos. His performances suggested there was no change to his game. In fact, it appeared the time away from the field saw Slater come back better than ever. However, he was unfortunately overlooked for selection in the Anzac Test, as well as the first game of the 2017 Origin series. Whilst the Aussies would win the Anzac test, the Maroons were destroyed by the Blues in front of a stunned Suncorp Stadium crowd, 28-4. This meant that Maroons coach, Kevin Walters would make some significant changes, including the recall of Slater. There, he would resume his position at fullback, and produce some outstanding performances, as the Maroons defied the odds to come back from the dead, and win the Origin series yet again. In the third game, Slater was part of a Maroons spine, consisting entirely of then Storm players (Cameron Munster, Cronk, Smith, as well as Slater himself). Moreover, he would accomplish further glory with the Storm, as they romped their way to both the minor premiership, as well as the grand final, where they would destroy a Cowboys team, who were also impressive in their run to the big dance, only to run out of puff. Slater would score a try in the grand final against his boyhood team, and would be awarded the Clive Churchill Medal as best player in the match.
One final bow
He has announced that this year is his final one in a Maroons jersey. Although he was unable to prevent his beloved Maroons from losing the series, he produced a typical Billy Slater performance, marshaling his troops in defence, while being a perpetual danger in attack. However, it was in the green and gold jersey for Australia, which Slater had the most ideal send-off. He would participate in the World Cup on home soil in 2017, scoring in every match he played in, except for the final against old rivals, England. One of the matches which he scored a try was in the opener against England, as well as being named man of the match in that game. The only match he would miss in that tournament was the group match against Lebanon. Despite not scoring a try in the final, the victorious result meant a multitude of things. Slater was able to completely banish the demons of the 2008 World Cup final, as well as taste World Cup glory yet again, and would experience it on home soil as well as his home state of Queensland. What a fitting farewell for one of the greats of the game at national level (although little did he know at the time that it would be his last match in a Kangaroos jersey).
Slater’s retirement from representative football means the Maroons’ greatly feared spine of himself, Thurston, Cronk and Smith will no longer be seen at representative level. It also means that the Maroons will lose a substantial amount of strike power in attack, as well as some calming reassurance in defence. His replacement, young gun Kalyn Ponga will be able to replace him, but it could also take some time. Despite the fact that the Maroons have already lost the series, courtesy of two close victories by the Blues, they have proven that they will not give up that easily. This never-say-die attitude really comes to the fore whenever they don the Maroons jersey. This means that they have all the motivation in the world to win this match. Not only will they want to prevent a whitewash from happening (particularly on home soil), they will also want to unleash their fury of a lost series on the Blues. Moreover, they will want to send their champion halfback out a winner. Undoubtedly, Slater would have liked to have exited the representative stage with another series win, however, he will still undoubtedly be fired up for this game, in order to end his representative career on a winning note of sorts. It’s the least he deserves.
However, regardless of the result, there is minimal doubt that Slater’s representative career will be remembered for the flair that he displayed for the Maroons and Kangaroos, while terrorising the living daylights out of the Blues and other countries’ national rugby league teams. There is no doubt he deserves the success that he achieved at representative level. Not bad at all for someone who started his career as a tiny kid, who could have easily been intimidated by much larger blokes. The journey is more important than the destination.
What are your best memories of Billy Slater's time at the representative levels? Let us know in the comments below.