Slater still providing input for Storm
At this time of year Billy Slater is used to being the centre of attention.
A big game player who embraces the occasion and the expectation placed upon him. Every year at this very time we are reminded of his importance to the Melbourne Storm side.
However on Sunday we were reminded in a different way than we had before.
That morning the club held an open training session at Gosch's Paddock where around 1000 Storm fans turned out to support their boys.
The sun was shining, the atmosphere buzzing and the anticipation building ahead of next Saturday night's preliminary final against the Cowboys.
Yet amidst all the excitement one could not help but notice the lone figure roaming around the outskirts as the playing group when about their business.
He was not moping or feeling sorry for himself, in fact he looked to offer advice where he could.
As brave as he was being, you could tell on his face he was hurting.
"It is extremely hard actually. I didn't anticipate it to be this hard but that's footy. You've got to take the bad with the good," Slater said.
"I can still try and contribute and help the guys off the field where I can but it's not the same."
The 32-year-old has been forced to watch from the sidelines since undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in mid-June.
The qualifying final win over the Roosters last week was just the second final Slater had missed in his career – the first was due to an ankle injury for a semi-final against the Cowboys in 2005.
In recent weeks he has returned to training, albeit in a limited capacity, but he admits his chances of making a shock return in 2015 is impossible.
"I'd love to be able to stand here and say I'll be right but unfortunately no," Slater said.
"It is progressing well, I'm back training and running and that's great but unfortunately not going to be out there.
"I haven't sat out an entire season like this year. It is certainly something I'm not used to, it's different but at the same time it had reminded me what I have when I am playing and what I'm missing out on."
Rather than be a match-winner, Slater's role is to now help his teammates become one.
Melbourne have won seven of 12 games since their star fullback was ruled out for the season.
His absence has seen youngster Cameron Munster fill the void with surprising effect. The recently turned 21-year-old averaged 179 metres during the season – ranking him fourth in the NRL.
Munster's emergence was a key reason in the Storm managing to secure a top four finish even with the best fullback in the game watching from the stands.
However this week an enormous challenge awaits when Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys ride into town.
If one man knows how to cope with the mercurial kicking game of JT it is Slater, who has played alongside Thurston with the Maroons and Kangaroos.
"A lot of teams these days like to put the bombs up and keep you in that 10 metre period, JT likes to put it along the ground and get you in goal to try and force an error," Slater said.
"You've got to rely on your teammates to put pressure on him, take his space away and work as a unit. If you try to take on JT one-out I think that is where he can hurt you."
Throughout Sunday's training session Slater was visibly in the ear of Munster, preparing him for whatever may come his way on Saturday night.
There is no doubt Slater has always been an important player at this time of the year however this year his importance will be one that is played out away from centre stage.
This video first appeared on melbournestorm.com.au