MVPs for 2014: Billy Slater
It's a testament to Billy Slater's prodigious talent that despite firing on just six of eight cylinders he still managed to record a 2013 season that was the envy of most of his NRL teammates.
The blistering speed, unparalleled support play, ability to beat a man on the outside and desperate try-saving feats the breadth of the Melbourne goal line... they were all in abundance as the Storm swept through the year before being bundled out in the grand final qualifier.
Few players have the innate ability to read a game like 'The Kid' – exemplified by his brilliant presence of mind to ensure he was in the right place at the right time to receive a belated pop pass from teammate Ryan Hoffman and cross untouched against the Knights in their gripping 16-14 win in Round 14.
Slater's defensive play could not be faulted, with his on-the-spot clean-up of a Ben Barba grubber on his line in their 22-18 win over the Bulldogs in Round 3 a classic example of his worth.
However, it has to be noted the 2008 Golden Boot winner's positives were tempered by a dip in his try assist statistics (down from 22 in 2012 to 12 in 2013) as well as an alarming error count that showed he was guilty of blundering more often than any other fullback in the competition (26 in 24 games), and the ninth most overall.
All of which serves to confirm just how important it is that in 2014, Slater returns to the all-round good guy he has been for the Victorian franchise for the past 11 years.
There's no question he gave his all in attempting to cross the stripe last season: he scored 18 tries in his 24 games, pushing his name into the NRL's all-time leading try-scorers' list and becoming Melbourne's leading try-scorer for the fifth time.
He enters his 12th season in the NRL with a tally of 158 tries from 248 first grade games, for a superb strike rate of a try scored every 125 minutes.
But five-eighth Gareth Widdop's exit to St George Illawarra has weakened the imposing Melbourne spine, heaping more pressure on Slater, Cooper Cronk and captain Cameron Smith to keep the attack flowing.
Expect Slater to get his hands on the ball even more, especially on the left edge, either in the front line of the attack or else looping around as the second-man runner before linking with an outside man.
And of course changes to NRL Fantasy scoring involving try saves and bomb defusals make fullbacks like Slater more relevant to Fantasy coaches; try saves – previously a dead category for Fantasy points – will attract five points in 2014, while grubber and bomb defusals – a Slater specialty – will earn the catcher a point apiece.
A winner of the 2011 Dally M medal, it would not surprise to see the Storm custodian rank among the frontrunners for this year's award when the competition heads deep into August.