Dave Craven '“ '˜Greatest full-back' Billy Slater will be sorely missed by us all

THIS could be a column about an international full-back who had the world at his feet yet, maddeningly, blew it all.

Billy Slater.
Billy Slater.

But it is going to be about an international full-back who had the world at his feet, worked tirelessly at his game, made the most of every opportunity possible, took nothing for granted and will be remembered as one of rugby league’s finest-ever exponents.

Yes, let us forget about Zak Hardaker and talk about Billy Slater instead. Tomorrow will be the great man’s last match and what a fitting way to bow out – an NRL Grand Final for his beloved Melbourne Storm against Sydney Roosters, led by his old mucker Cooper Cronk.

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Yet it does not seem right that Slater is packing in. He might be 35 but the brilliant full-back, all grace and almost balletic at times, still skips around like the fresh-faced 19-year-old who burst onto the scene in 2003.

In that maiden campaign, the boy from Nambour finished with 19 tries from just 26 games. The scene was set. He has never looked back.

Granted, plenty will think there was nothing graceful or balletic about his desperate shoulder charge on Sosaia Feki to deny the Cronulla Sharks man a try in last week’s semi-final victory.

That was simply Slater showing one of his many other traits – a willingness to do anything for his side to gain victory. Clearly, though, it is understandable why he thought he may subsequently miss out on his chance at a fairytale finish.

Once called before the judiciary it is remarkable that Slater then got off the charge on Tuesday to be cleared to play for this Grand Final.

By the letter of the law, Queensland State of Origin star Slater should have been banned as much as it would have been immensely sad to see him miss out on his last hurrah.

Nevertheless, it has brought into question again whether or not shoulder charges should be legalised once again.

I have to agree, looking at what Slater did, there is a real argument that this sort of challenge – side-on, at high pace in a bid to protect his line – should be allowed at least. However, that is for another day.

What about Slater the player?

There are too many vintage performances to recollect in a column of this size.

But, listening to Tim Sheens recently talking about his two-try display in the 2013 World Cup final, it is hard not to think of that.

Slater was imperious that night, despite severely injuring his knee in the quarter-final just two weeks previously.

Hull KR coach Sheens, who was Australia chief in 2013, recalled how he had “no chance” of playing but Slater insisted he “wouldn’t let him down.”

Far from it. Slater helped destroy the Kiwis at Old Trafford in a typically breathless and brave display.

Let us not forget he had endured misery, too, in the tournament before, his glaring error playing a big part in the shock 2008 World Cup final loss to New Zealand.

It is testament to his character he bounced back from that just as he did, remarkably, from that major shoulder surgery in 2016 to lead Storm to glory last year.

It has been a real pleasure watching Slater over the years.

Andrew Johns says he is the greatest full-back he has ever seen. I have to agree and I’m sure many others will, too. He will be sorely missed.