Slater ices stunning comeback
One of rugby league's most remarkable comebacks was truly complete on Sunday night as Storm fullback Billy Slater capped off his incredible year with a man-of-the-match performance in a dominant 34-6 NRL Telstra Grand Final win.
The 34-year-old also said he remains undecided as to whether he will play on next year, but expects to make a decision in the next few weeks. That call will be based purely on whether he feels physically up to another season and won't be influenced by the chance to go out on a high as a premiership winner.
“It will be a physical decision and the victory won't determine whether I play on,” he said.
“I'm feeling quite good but I'm 34, I've played 15 years in the NRL and I've had some pretty serious injuries. I've just got to make sure I'm doing the right thing, number one for myself and my family and number two for the club.
“I don't want to make the decision lightly then leave the club in a position where they need to pick someone up late and there's no-one left or something like that. I want to make sure I'm making the right decision.
“That decision will come soon but at the moment I just want to enjoy it. I've wanted to enjoy the finals series and I suppose I look back on what I haven't had the last two years and I've got it now. I want to enjoy it.
“Sitting out on the field last year with a suit on after we came so close and seeing the heartbreak in my teammates' eyes and knowing I was helpless in contributing, that really hurt me and I could do something about it this year and I really wanted to make an impact."
Slater spent the best part of two seasons in 2015-16 sidelined with a chronic shoulder injury. It required two operations, and the eight months of intense rehab he went through the first time was sent him back to square one to start all over again when he needed a second reconstruction.
Despite all that, and the countless hours in the gym and dark moments questioning whether his body would ever allow him back on an NRL field, Slater returned in Round 3 this year and put together one of the best seasons of his career.
The 2011 Dally M winner collected his third Dally M Fullback of the Year award before his fine all-round game on Sunday – including a try and a try assist – earned him a second Clive Churchill medal for best on ground in a grand final.
“When you go through what I've been through, it's hard not to be emotional," Slater said of his tears shortly after full time.
“I love this game, I love playing this game and that was taken away from me. I got injured in Round 5 2015. That's a long time ago. I've been fighting the battle since then.
“I worked seven, eight months really hard to go all the way back to the start, a bit like snakes and ladders. That was heartbreaking for me to get that news [that the shoulder had to be operated on again].
“I knew what I had to put myself through to get myself into that position again. Once I worked out that's what I wanted to do I still wasn't sure whether my body was going to let me do that and get back to playing rugby league let alone playing in a Grand Final. It's been a long road for myself."
Storm coach Craig Bellamy was effusive in his praise of the fullback's return this season and stressed the club would respect whatever decision Slater makes regarding his future.
“It's Bill's decision and we respect what decision he makes," Bellamy said.
“I'd love to see him go on and I've said that a million times before. It's hard to put into words. He got what he deserved [on Sunday].
“To come back from that injury that he had, he had two operations on it, and be out of the game for 18 months and not be sure whether all that work he put in was going to allow him to come back anyway, that was remarkable.
“To come back and win a premiership and win the Clive Churchill, I couldn't think of anyone more deserving of that after the setbacks he's had in that 18 months and the amount of work he put in.
“It's taken a whole heap of time and a whole heap of work but to come back like he has and to do what he did, there's not too many guys I know that would be able to do that.”