In view of the famous white picket fence surrounding North Sydney Oval sweat streams down the forehead of Melbourne Storm fullback Billy Slater. After all, he has just gone toe-to-toe with fast-bowler Mitchell Johnson in a series of performance tests known as the Powerade Powerscore – and prevailed.
After a morning spent measuring speed, power, agility and endurance, Billy sits on top of the Powerscore Leaderboard with a score of 930.
Our Journey staff sat down with Billy, who is widely considered the greatest rugby league fullback of his generation, to explore his rise to the NRL’s elite, touching on every step he’s taken along the way.
Meet “Billy the Kid”.
Journey: How did you get into rugby league? How old were you when you first touched a footy?
Billy: I started playing league when I was four years old, so I was quite young. My dad coached and played footy throughout my childhood so I basically grew up going to the football with my parents and my sister.
Some days I think footy chose me. But I’m glad. It’s a great game to be a part of.
Journey: When was the moment you decided to pursue footy professionally?
Billy: To be able to play professional footy was always a dream of mine. It was always what I wanted to do but it probably wasn’t realistic until I was 17.
It started with the decision to move away from home so I could play for Brisbane North. They were affiliated with the Melbourne Storm so I could see the opportunity that sat in front of me. It was in arm’s reach.
I was committed: making the decision to move away from home, to drive 20 hours for a trial where nothing was guaranteed but I knew I had to put myself in the situation where I could give myself a chance.
If I didn’t make the decision to go down to Brisbane that day I’m not sure if I would have a rugby league career or not. Maybe I would, but maybe not.
Journey: You made your first-grade debut against Cronulla in 2003. What do you remember about that game?
Billy: I generally don’t remember a lot of my games but that’s one I remember quite well. It was special running out knowing Mum and Dad were in the crowd. It was something I was very proud to do.
But it didn’t start real well. After 20 minutes we were down 22-0 but we eventually came back and won the game, which was amazing. That made it even more special.
Journey: How does that compare to your State of Origin debut in 2004?
Billy: I’d only played a season and a half of first-grade when I was called in to play for Queensland so it all happened really fast.
To run out in that sort of environment with that atmosphere was something totally foreign to me. It’s honestly hard to explain. The build-up for an Origin match is like nothing else, it’s completely mind-blowing.
There’s so much hype around the series that you’ve got to focus on what you can control, that’s the case for any game but even more so for an Origin match. [Former Brisbane Bronco and champion fullback] Darren Lockyer once told me the bigger the game the simpler your focus should be and I’ve always taken that in stride.
Journey: What was it like going into Queensland’s State of Origin camp a mentor for the last two series? Are you hopeful you’ll make the side this year?
Billy: Going in a mentor these last two years was both good and bad. It was really good to still be a part of the Queensland side; to be able to contribute working with Darius [Boyd, Broncos’ fullback] and few of the younger outside backs who were called into the team.
At the same time in my heart and my head I just really wanted to be out there competing, you know, right out there in the thick of things. It made that mentor role tough at times but I got to experience a completely different angle of the game and I think I gained a lot of value from that.
My priority now is just to get back and play some consistent footy. If my body is holding up OK and the [Queensland] team needs me, which is more important, well I’d love to get back into the arena and play for Queensland again.
Journey: You’ve played for the Melbourne Storm for 15 seasons now. What has kept you there for so long?
Billy: I think ultimately it’s been my competitiveness and hunger to work hard. When I got down there at end of 2002 Craig Bellamy had just taken over as head coach and he demanded a strong work ethic; it was what he built his game on. Coming into that environment that’s what I saw as important to being successful.
I’m a pretty competitive person: whether it’s a game of cricket or a game of ping-pong, I want to win it. That’s been my nature throughout my career.
Journey: You’ve achieved a lot in your time on the footy field. What has been the most memorable moment for you so far? And what are you ambitions for this year and the years to come?
Billy: I still think my debut game would be right up there as one of the most memorable moments for me but it’s hard, there are so many great moments. Obviously, State of Origin. Playing in the World Cup for Australia in 2013 was a great moment. Then there’s the Premiership. I’ve been really fortunate to have so many good things happen in my career.
As far as this year goes I just want to get back to enjoying footy again. I’ve always been a footy-mad kid. I enjoy watching it, I enjoy talking about it and I certainly enjoy playing it.
Having missed the better part of the last two seasons, that feeling of playing the game is what I’ve missed most. It hasn’t been the finals or any particular achievement, just the feeling that the game gives you when you’ve gone out there and competed with your mates and you know you’ve put everything into it. Anything else that comes along is just a bonus.
It’s a great game. It’s been a part of my life pretty much since I was born and I’m sure it’ll be a part of my life until I leave this place.