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Billy Slater retires as most consistently brilliant NRL player of his generation | Sport

Billy Slater will leave the NRL at season’s end having achieved all there is to be achieved in the sport known as the “greatest game of all”. The four-time premiership winner has played in an extraordinary seven grand finals over a 16-year career with the Melbourne Storm. He was a central figure in Queensland’s decade of dominance, a certain selection for nearly the span of his entire career. He played in three World Cup finals, winning two, and has an extraordinary record of scoring at least one try in 10 of his 13 World Cup games.

The individual accolades have been just as prevalent. His extraordinary 2008 saw him win the Golden Boot as the best player in the game. He would win the Dally M medal that should have gone to him that season in 2011. He was presented with the Clive Churchill medal in 2009 after starring in the Storm’s grand final victory. At 35 and in his first game captaining Queensland, Slater was awarded the player of the series award as he bade farewell to the representative game.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid to Slater though came from Joyce Churchill, the wife of the late Clive, the player regarded by many as the finest rugby league has ever known. Mrs Churchill compared Slater favourably to her late husband, saying “I see a lot of Clive in Billy”. Churchill was named one of the original Immortals in 1981.

To be compared to perhaps the greatest player to ever step onto a field shows just how truly great Slater has been for the length of his stellar career. He has been the most consistently brilliant player of his generation. He has created a genuine argument that he is the best fullback in the history of the sport. He is without question a future Immortal. Nobody under the age of 50 has seen a tryscorer like him.

Slater came a long way from the boy who didn’t see a future in rugby league and had turned his focus to horses, riding trackwork and mucking stables for Gai Waterhouse. Though blessed with brilliant pace, Slater was told he lacked the size to make a career as a league player.

He didn’t only make a career – he became arguably the game’s most popular star, setting the field alight time and time again. With 187 career tires, only Ken Irvine on 221 sits above the Storm custodian. Only two players have scored in more games.

A mark of how dangerous Slater was with his kick returns lives on today through the seven-tackle set awarded if a team boots the ball dead or touch in-goal. The rule came about due to the prevalence of the tactic when teams, fearful of Slater touching the ball, opted instead to boot the ball dead. Few players forced an actual rule change. Slater did.

While he will forever be remembered for his brilliance with the ball in hand, scything through a defensive line or chasing down an impossible-to-get kick, two elements of his game that don’t get the credit they deserve are his toughness and his defensive nous.

Slater generally had a good run with injury until the backend of his career but two knee reconstructions could well have forced him out of the game. They didn’t. He fought back, won a premiership with the Storm and then went on to captain Queensland, an incredible testament to both his physical and mental toughness.

His ability to organise a defensive line is also without peer. The Storm have been the best defensive side in the premiership during the Craig Bellamy era and much of that rests on Slater’s ability to organise his line, get players in the right position, make them work hard.

Rugby league has gone through a golden age of great players with Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston nearing the end of their decorated careers and Darren Lockyer retiring just a half-decade back. Slater deserves his place among those all-time legends. The game was truly blessed to have Billy, a player whose deeds will live on as long as the game of rugby league does.

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