Asked to nominate some of the most challenging periods of his rugby league career, Billy Slater quickly names 2016. His season lasted only 80 minutes after he suffered an excruciating shoulder injury during a round one win over the Dragons.
Just the year before that, Billy had sustained a labral tear that required shoulder surgery and ruled him out of much of the season. The injuries caused the popular Melbourne Storm fullback to contemplate his future.
“When things are taken away from you, your perspective changes. After my second shoulder operation last year, I honestly didn’t know whether I’d play another game. It’s the first time in my career that things were out of my control,” he says.
“I wasn’t giving up, although people in the media were saying, ‘he’ll never play again’. I worked really hard to get my shoulder back to where it is now.”
Grit and hard work have been part of Billy’s modus operandi since he was growing up in Innisfail in far-north Queensland.
“My parents taught me that if you want something, you have to knuckle down. Mum and dad worked extremely hard all their life and mum had two or three jobs sometimes – filling teabags at the Nerada Tea factory, cleaning, or driving the pie van around town,” he recalls.
“I never got handed opportunities as a kid coming through the sport. I had to knock on doors. I didn’t make the North Queensland representative side as a kid and I didn’t play in any of the big school carnivals, either. I hope the road I’ve taken to get where I am can inspire other young people. There is always hope if you work hard.”
Billy grew up in a close-knit family and had two loves as a child – rugby league and horses. His dad, Ron, played and coached local rugby for many years and nurtured his son’s passion for the game. Billy’s grandpa, William Slater, after whom Billy is named, was a boxer and a stockman who fostered Billy’s love of horses.
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Even before he started school, Billy was a regular in the dressing rooms of the senior local clubs his father coached. While the team did warm-ups and drills, Billy would imitate them on the sidelines. At the age of four, though small, he played with local junior teams. What he lacked in size, he made up in confidence and skill.
But after leaving school at 16, Billy didn’t immediately set his sights on a career in rugby league. He moved to Sydney to work with Gai Waterhouse as a stable hand and trackwork rider. He earned $5.12 an hour and lived in a cupboard-sized room in a boarding house. His mum, Judy, sent him a bar fridge from home on a banana truck.
“It was seven days a week and relentless, and many people aren’t prepared to work like that,” says Billy. “If this game of rugby was easy, everyone would be doing it. There are a lot of people more talented than me but they’re not here because they’re not willing to work hard. You have to apply yourself and make sacrifices.”
Eventually, the racing industry was eclipsed by rugby league. After 18 months in Sydney, Billy joined the Innisfail Leprechauns under-18s. It was the start of the career that led him to debut with Melbourne Storm in March 2003.
In 2004, Billy was selected for the Queensland State of Origin team and has played 27 matches for Queensland, 25 Tests for Australia and is a two-time World Cup player. His accolades include the Dally M Player of the Year, the Wally Lewis Medal, Clive Churchill Medal and Golden Boot award.
Billy’s career with the Storm led him and his childhood sweetheart Nicole to make their home in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. They met at pony club, and have two children – daughter Tyla is almost nine and son Jake is seven. “Innisfail will always be my home but this is my family’s home now – although the weather took getting used to!”
This year, Billy has spent time thinking about what comes next. In July, he was badly concussed by a crunching high tackle from the Canberra Raiders’ Sia Soliola and he is thinking carefully about whether his body can face another punishing NRL season. During some downtime, he has written his life story so far and he’s quietly proud of what he’s achieved and survived.
“I’ve taken some knocks over the years and I can cop a knock and move on quickly. But when your daughter is watching and gets upset, and your family get upset, you look at those sorts of things a bit differently. But will that particular incident have an impact on whether I play next year? One hundred per cent not,” he says.
“I’m still hungry to compete and to become a better player. And you’re a long time retired. Once you’re retired there’s no coming back at 35 years old. It’s game over, so I want to make the right decision.”
When he does stop playing, he’d like a coaching role at Storm. A commentating role also holds appeal for the modest and affable athlete.
Horses are still a passion, too. He has two broodmares and is immersing himself in the world of breeding and thoroughbred racing.
Billy and Nicole are building a house on a property outside Melbourne where they can breed horses and enjoy the country lifestyle they love with Tyla and Jake.
The kids have also joined dad on the field as ball boy and ball girl at Melbourne Storm games. “They will remember those days and remember me playing and that makes me happy,” he says. “They run past me and high five me during the game and that puts things in perspective.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the professionalism of rugby league but when your seven-year-old runs past you and gives you a bit of cheek, you realise you’re only playing a game.”
Billy’s favourite family days out
- We take the surfboards and play cricket at a Surf Coast beach – one of my favourite days.
- We go to the Moonee Valley or country races because, these days, racing accommodates the whole family, with farms and jumping castles.
- A couple of mates play for Carlton and I take my young fella to the games at the ‘G.
- Being from North Queensland, it’s a bit foreign to me, but we go to the snow at Falls Creek. Skiing wasn’t my forte but I was more comfortable on a snowboard.
- We enjoy going to Mitchelton Winery in Nagambie and getting onto the Goulburn River on a beautiful day, underneath the gum trees.
BILLY SLATER AUTOBIOGRAPHY
- By Billy Slater, with Richard Hinds,
- Edbury Australia. $45.