Billy Slater maintains his focus at training after being recalled to the Queensland team for tonight's State of Origin clash.
Billy Slater maintains his focus at training after being recalled to the Queensland team for tonight's State of Origin clash. DAVE HUNT

Slater determined to enjoy Origin return

RUGBY LEAGUE: It was the 52 minutes of football that proved to Billy Slater he could return to the elite level of rugby league.

Slater's stats from Melbourne's Round 3 win against Brisbane in March hardly set the world on fire.

The man talked about as a future Immortal of the game came off the bench in the Storm's 14-12 win over the Broncos and made two errors, conceded a penalty, made just one tackle and missed another in an effort that certainly won't rate as his best of all time.

But it could end up being one of his most memorable games.

Just over 12 months earlier, Slater had lined up in the opening round of the season, full of hope his reconstructed shoulder would hold up to the rigours of an NRL season but headed off the field 80 minutes later knowing something was wrong.

After another bout of surgery and rehabilitation, Slater knew there could be no guarantees this time around.


Billy Slater of the Storm of the Storm is seen in action during the Round 5 NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and the Penrith Panthers at AAMI Park in Melbourne, Saturday, April 1, 2017. (AAP Image/Julian Smith) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Billy Slater on the fly for the Melbourne Storm. JULIAN SMITH

"It was a different feeling," Slater said of the anxiety surrounding his return against the Broncos.

"I was really nervous going into that game and made a few mistakes and didn't play my best.

"But I've never played that bad and felt that good after a game.

"It was a really weird feeling, I was just so happy to get through the game.

"Twelve months earlier I was in the same situation and I walked off that field knowing something was wrong, so I felt pretty good to finish that game."

Slater will notch another post-injury "first" tonight making his State of Origin return to play his 28th game in the Maroons jersey.

Origin was not a driver during his rehabilitation but once Slater knew his body would not fail him, returning to the game's toughest arena was certainly a goal.

"I never, ever gave up hope," Slater said of an Origin recall.

"Even when I got the setback in game one (being overlooked for selection), I always wanted to go out there and perform well and if the opportunity came up, be ready.

"I think playing rugby league was my sole motivation (during rehab). Obviously I wanted to get my shoulder back as strong as possible for life in general.

"But once I knew I could play rugby league again, I just wanted to get back and enjoy the game and I've been able to do that.

"Now I'm fortunate enough to wear a maroon jersey again which I've always really enjoyed doing and I'll be looking forward to the game."

Slater may not have played an Origin game for two years but he was key to Queensland's successful campaign last year after joining Kevin Walters' coaching staff to help guide the Maroons back three.

The experience didn't necessarily give him a new perspective on the game.

"It just reiterated to me that I wasn't ready to give up playing State of Origin," he said.

"As good as it was to be involved in last year's series, I felt I was rubbing my own nose in the situation. It was right there in front of me but I couldn't be a part of it the way I wanted to be a part of it.

"That certainly planted the seed in wanting to get back here."

Slater will return at fullback after being overlooked for the position in Game One, with incumbent and Kangaroos No.1 Darius Boyd getting the nod.

Slater was keen to stress there was no bad blood between the pair despite their competition for the position being portrayed in some circles as some sort of personal rivalry.

"I understand externally it's been put up as a Darius versus myself over the last month but we certainly don't see it that way," Slater said.

"I was in contact with Darbs post selection in the first game and even leading into game one I sent him a message and wished him all the best and told him how confident I was with him in that position and that he deserved it and that a lot of the chat was unwarranted.

"At the end of the day, we just want what's best for Queensland."


Billy Slater (left) and Cameron Smith during the Queensland State of Origin team training session on the Gold Coast, Friday, June 16, 2017. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt) NO ARCHIVING
Billy Slater (left) practises his kicking game with Queensland skipper Cameron Smith. DAVE HUNT

Slater turned 34 on Sunday and knows he is nearing the end of his celebrated career but still plays with the joy of the kid that started his career in Innisfail almost three decades ago.

And after the adversity of the past two years, he appreciates every moment in the game.

"I'm just grateful I've got the opportunity to play again," he said.

"It's not that you take it for granted, but sometimes you don't focus on the little enjoyment things in the game and you're caught up in your preparation and the demand that external pressure put on you.

"I sit back and enjoy the little things a lot more now."

And a Queensland Origin comeback would be an occasion worth celebrating.