I spoke to Billy for League Express in early 2008 when he was in England with Melbourne Storm to play in the World Club Challenge against Leeds. Later in the year, he won the Golden Boot which I presented to him in Sydney. In 2009 he tasted Premiership, Origin and Four Nations glory for club, state and country but could only watch helplessly as Melbourne Storm’s world collapsed in 2010 when it emerged that systematic cheating of the salary cap resulted in the club being stripped of the 2007 and 2009 NRL titles. Despite that and Four Nations disappointment against the Kiwis, Slater is still regarded as one of the best players in the game.
Did you enjoy your trip to England?
Yes, apart from losing to Leeds! Overall, the trip was great. We spent some time in London after the game which was a great place to experience. You always want to experience different cultures and we’ll grow as players and individuals from this trip. But we were still disappointed to lose of course. It was a good game, both teams turned up and I was impressed with our defence although our attack was a little bit off.
Is that down to a lack of matches?
You could put it down to that but we’ve still had enough training time and we prepared for the game for a while so it’s not really an excuse.
What do you make of the World Club Challenge concept?
It’s probably at the most practical time. It would be hard to have it after the Grand Final because players want to have an off-season and they switch off straight after the Grand Final.
How did you get into Rugby League?
I’ve played Rugby League since I was a four-year-old. My dad and his brothers played all their lives and dad was coaching when I grew up. I grew up in a little town in north Queensland called Innisfail and played my Rugby League there when I was younger before moving to Brisbane but by the time I got to Brisbane, I was already signed up to the Storm. I stuck with them and they gave me the opportunity that I was looking for.
Will you come back to England and play for a Super League club?
Yeah … I’m not too sure about that. You never know I suppose but I’m signed up for three years at Melbourne and I’m pretty happy with that.
When had you first realised you had a Rugby League career ahead of you?
I’d always dreamed about it. I was always in the backyard with a footy but it wasn’t until I was about 17 that I decided to move to Brisbane and have a real crack at it.
Weren’t you a jockey?
No, I was never a jockey. I was a stable-hand and did a bit of track work, training them etc. When I was 16, I worked with a well-known stable and went down to Sydney for six months. It was a great experience but hard work – it was seven days a week. I’ve always maintained my interest in horses and I want to keep my foot in the door and maybe one day I’ll have a couple of horses and train them myself. I had those six months off footy but missed it too much.
Melbourne Storm played their first game in 1998. When did you move down there?
I went down to Melbourne at the end of 2002 when Craig Bellamy took over from Mark Murray as Storm coach. Before that, I’d been playing for Brisbane Norths, the Storm’s feeder club. I started training with the full-time squad, at the same time as Dallas Johnson, and played the full 2003 season. Dallas has gone on to have a great career, not getting the accolades he deserves. He’s got the best defensive technique in Australia. He’s the last person you want to run into.
You’d have won the Dally M Rookie of the Year in 2003 but the awards night was cancelled.
That’s right. I wasn’t too worried about that at the time because it was just such an honour to have found out that I’d effectively won the award although looking back, it would be nice if my name was next to that award. It was a great season though and my debut game is one of my career highlights. It was at Cronulla and we were down 22-0 just before half-time. But we came back and won the game with two minutes to go, scoring a 100 metre try. It was a great comeback and it was Dallas’s debut game too.
You played State of Origin in 2004 and 2005.
That was a great period of my life. There’s no better football that State of Origin. Well, maybe a Grand Final. I played on the wing in 2004, scoring a try in the second game. Then in 2005, I played the first two at fullback. After that, suspension and injury kept me out.
Does Origin not interrupt the NRL season too much?
It affects the NRL because players are pulled out of their club games the weekend before an Origin so the top clubs are hit hard. But it’s a small sacrifice for a great concept and a great series. The boys go into camp for a week and the build-up is unbelievable. Not many people get to experience it and those that do don’t tend to forget it.
Do the players take much notice of the history of Origin?
Yeah definitely. At the moment, Mal Meninga is coaching Queensland, then there’s the Walters brothers involved, Trevor Gillmeister and (Chris) Choppy Close all involved so the traditions are kept up. Those guys let us know what it’s all about and hopefully in 20 years time, we’ll be doing the same thing.
2006 wasn’t the best year for you was it?
It was an up and down year. I was out for a fair few weeks with suspension and then I came back but we lost the Grand Final to Brisbane having played so well all year. A few decisions didn’t go our way but we did some uncharacteristic things too which cost us. But in 2007 we made the necessary adjustments and got another crack at it and fortunately the final went our way.
Were you nervous that you might fall at the final hurdle again?
We were more confident than anything else to be honest. We stayed in Sydney all week and having experienced the final the year before, we knew what to do. There obviously would have been nerves – some players get nervous playing a trial game let alone a final. We were 10-4 up at half-time but I thought we’d dominated more than that. We should have scored a couple more tries because we bombed a few chances but to the boys’ credit we didn’t let that affect us and we ran away with it in the end.
Do you think the Grand Final win help increase your profile in Melbourne?
Well, it’s an AFL town of course, but the profile is increasing all the time. People recognise us more and more when we’re in town but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Aside from winning the competition, will 2007 also be remembered for the emergence of Israel Folau?
Yes, I think so. He’s a great player but we’ve been lucky to have so many quality youngsters, like Greg Inglis too. Izzy’s got it all – the size, the footwork, the defence, the speed and he’s great under a high ball. We’re lucky to have him.
What’s Craig Bellamy like to play for?
He’s great. He’s a perfectionist and very diligent. He breaks the game into so many little parts, leaving no stone unturned and he does what he can to make it easy for us.
No team has defended a Premiership since Brisbane Broncos in 1993. Can you do it?
It’ll be a tough ask but as long as we have our fair share of luck, keep our players on the field and keep improving what we’re doing then we’ll be thereabouts. There are a lot of great teams about and I think the Roosters will come good again this year.