How Billy the Kid became The Man
CRAIG Bellamy saw greatness in Billy Slater a long time before the Maroons fullback champion began drawing the curtain on his decorated Origin career.
Fifteen years ago, I called Bellamy for a preview story on the mighty 2003 World Sevens, a rugby league concept that has since gone the way of other wonderful fads like Walkmans and Hypercolor T-shirts.
Bellamy was in his first year as Melbourne coach. As he prepared for his maiden tournament with a Storm senior squad, I asked Bellamy if there were any young guns worth watching out for.
"There is actually," he said. "We've got this young kid called Billy Slater.
"He used to be a trackwork jockey so he's not the biggest bloke, but he's got some speed, has great footwork and he's competitive.
"Billy is one guy I think can make it in the NRL."
A month after Bellamy's assessment, Slater cracked the NRL, scoring a try on debut in a 36-32 upset of the Sharks.
By season's end, he had scored 19 tries from 26 games.
Within 15 months, the kid from Innisfail was making his Queensland debut, producing the freakish chip-and-chase try that has etched him into every Origin highlights reel.
Slater didn't so much arrive in the NRL as hit it like a fullback tsunami.
The greatest players are the ones who spark tactical revolutions and Slater, as quick as a sprinter and fit as a Kenyan marathoner, redefined the art of fullback play.
Slater's ultimate coronation as a Maroon will come next Wednesday night when he qualifies for Queensland's Statesman's Club with his 30th Origin match.
Just nine others have achieved the feat. By series end, Slater, if he stays fit, will have overtaken Queensland's greatest Origin player, 31-game icon Wally 'The King' Lewis, on the list of all-time appearances.
On Tuesday, as he walked into a press conference to announce his representative retirement, it seemed age had not wearied Slater. His fast feet have helped him sidestep Father Time better than most.
While most mid-30s NRL stars have the weather-beaten look of a pugilist who has gone 12 rounds with Kostya Tszyu, Slater still radiates the energy and vigour of the baby-faced winger who scored that magical Origin try two days shy of his 21st birthday.
"Playing Origin at 20 was a really big moment in my life," he said.
"Even when I see it (his 2004 Suncorp try) on TV, the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up. But I just feel it's time.
"I had a fair indication that the World Cup last year would be the last time I played for Australia, it's been on my mind for a while, I always felt this would be my last Origin series.
"To be honest, I can't give you a real answer on why exactly (he's retiring from rep footy), but I'm 35 this year, this will be my 15th year for Queensland.
"I didn't want to be picked on my reputation. I'd like to finish my rep career making a difference."
Perhaps Slater's greatest legacy is not his catalogue of brilliance on the field but what he represents off it. By rights, he could easily be retired. His fightback from a second shoulder operation last year underlines the spirit that drives the Maroons … and his Queensland people.
"Billy Slater epitomises what Origin is all about," Queensland coach Kevin Walters said.
"A kid who makes it from the bush and turns the game of rugby league upside down.
"He has changed the way fullbacks play and to have him for 15 years is a dream for all Queenslanders.
"Everyone would remember Billy's great Origin try and that makes kids want to be like Billy Slater.
"He has been phenomenal for Queensland. I understand he can't play forever … now he gets to go out on his terms."