Sport

How young Slater slipped though Cowboys' fingers

STORIED CAREER: Storm fullback Billy Slater during a training session in Melbourne this week.
STORIED CAREER: Storm fullback Billy Slater during a training session in Melbourne this week. MAL FAIRCLOUGH

BILLY Slater grew up a horse-loving kid in Cowboy country and if not for a sliding-doors moment when he was a teenager he'd probably still be there.

That's right, the champion fullback who's only ever worn purple at NRL level used to run around in his Innisfail backyard wearing a Cowboys jersey and imitating his favourite player, the long-forgotten Reggie Cressbrook.

If his talent had been recognised back then he almost certainly would have signed his first contract with North Queensland and may have been preparing to line up against Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith this Sunday for a crack at a premiership.

Instead he slipped through the cracks before heading to Brisbane to pursue his footy dream, playing alongside fellow teenagers Cronk and Smith for Brisbane Norths - a feeder club for the Storm.

The rest, as they say in the classics, is history.

Not to say Slater is bitter about it. Why would he be when he's had such a fantastic career?

But there was a moment in late 2000 when he played for an Innisfail district side against the Cowboys Young Guns - a group of scholarship holders - and was his team's man of the match in a narrow loss, according to Richard Hinds, the author of Slater's recently released autobiography.

The match was watched by then-Cowboys coach Tim Sheens but Slater returned to Innisfail and never got the phone call that could have changed the course of his storied career.

"I didn't make too many rep sides up there," Slater admitted.

"I made the Innisfail district sides a fair bit but I never represented North Queensland. I never represented Queensland until I played in State of Origin.

"I was a small kid, and I know what angle you're sort of trying to go at here, but I was a small kid coming through and in that area it's really hard to pick everyone up, I understand that.

"There's no hard feelings on my behalf that I never played for the Cowboys."

You couldn't imagine the same could be said for the Cowboys fans who have missed out on arguably the greatest fullback in history.

How many titles could they have won with Johnathan Thurston pulling the strings and Slater wreaking havoc out the back?

It's one of those delicious hypotheticals that's fun to think about but doesn't really do anyone any favours.

One thing that's difficult to argue with is he would have made a more lasting impression than Crestbrook.

"I was a Broncos fan and then the Cowboys came into the competition in 1995 and then I supported them," Slater said.

"Obviously growing up in North Queensland, rugby league is the No.1 sport and having the Cowboys come into the competition it was great to watch them play.

"Reggie Cressbrook was one of my favourite players. Not a lot of people will probably remember Reggie, but he was the fullback for the Cowboys and I used to run around the backyard with a Cowboys jersey on.

"But look, I was just a rugby league-mad kid growing up there and just dreamt of playing in the NRL."

He's achieved far more than that since establishing himself as one of the excitement machines of the competition and the Storm have done an outstanding job, not just in developing him, but keeping him.

It speaks volumes that a player as good as Slater has played his whole career so far from home and never really entertained the idea of leaving.

"I went down to Brisbane when I was 17, just to give footy a crack, and I walked into a club that was affiliated with Melbourne Storm," he said.

"And Melbourne Storm gave me an opportunity to come down here and I suppose fulfil a dream of mine to play in the NRL and do what I'm doing for a job and I'm very grateful for that.

"I've always been happy to stay here at the Melbourne Storm. I've never really looked anywhere else, or never really come off contract to be honest, I've just signed a year in advance and I've always been happy and content with staying down here.

"I got an opportunity to come down to Melbourne and I'm very grateful for that opportunity and I've enjoyed my time down here."

Whether that time ends at the conclusion of Sunday night's grand final is still to be determined but if it does it's difficult to think of a more fitting way to finish up - playing for the club that made him a champion against the one that shaped his childhood dreams on the grandest stage in rugby league.

Topics:  billy slater melbourne storm north queensland cowboys sportfeature

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