By MITCH RODD
IN a State dominated by Aussie Rules, it takes one hell of a Rugby League player to make people turn heads.
Billy Slater is all that and more.
The athleticism, the sublime skill, and the performances on the big stage, all while donning that trademark cheeky grin ensured the 35-year-old is firmly in place as one of the country’s best sporting stars in recent history.
Better yet, he was the perfect role model and commodity to build the popularity and supporter base of Rugby League in a non-traditional State, especially in the Sunraysia region. No doubt many inroads made by the Sunraysia Rugby League into further developing juniors has been helped by arguably the best full-back in recent memory.
The Melbourne Storm, Australian and Queensland great, who no doubt will be named an NRL Immortal in the future, called time on his stellar career this week once the Storm’s season is over.
Slater’s marketability would have rubbed the off-field staff at Melbourne’s HQ up the right way.
Even in the office this week when discussing Slater’s career, one ‘Weekly staff member concluded, “You know that he’s been a brilliant player, and around for a long time, if I know who he is as a Rugby League player”.
Many of my family members reside in the Northern States and are rusted on League fans.
While my Dad was brought up in Wagga Wagga, and the family are NSW fans, as a neutral State of Origin onlooker I was drawn to the Maroons because of Billy Slater.
Kids in backyards would emulate Billy’s feats for their own amusement. No doubt his feats on the field saw the game of Rugby League embraced whole-heartedly.
Since debuting in 2003, Slater has played 313 games and scored 187 tries. Add to that 31 matches for Queensland with 12 tries and eight State of Origin titles, and 30 matches for Australia with 21 tries, two World Cups and two Four Nations titles. It’s a CV that stands up with the best of them.
To be honest, it won’t look right at all not having ‘Billy the Kid’ zipping around in the number one jersey.
It’s already weird enough that Cooper Cronk is wearing the red, white and blue of the Roosters.
As a trio, Slater, Cronk and Cameron Smith have done wonders for their chosen game in Victoria. Their performances caught the eyes of non-Rugby League fans enough to convert many into watching the game.
You sense Slater could have chosen any sporting path. Just look at highlights of him catching high-balls and tell me it wouldn’t rival the marking ability of a top-class AFL forward.
He showed his wares on the TV show ‘Australia’s Greatest Athlete’. The concept pitted eight stars from different Australian sports in all-round and sporting specific challenges to see who was the best. No surprises that Slater won the title in both 2009 and 2010.
In his press conference on Wednesday, Slater said it has been a pleasure to entertain us all over the years. In reality, the pleasure has been all ours.