Self-inflicted torture inspires Slater's return

Self-inflicted torture inspires Slater's return

Like most well-intentioned plans that in hindsight were obviously folly, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unable to play due to a second shoulder reconstruction in less than 12 months, Billy Slater was asked to bring his keen rugby league brain into the Queensland camp to assist in preparations for the 2016 Holden State of Origin Series.

‌While the tactical genius of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk is apparent to most, it is in fact Slater who many believe is the obvious choice to move into coaching when the trio retire. As such, the invite from new Queensland coach Kevin Walters made sense on many levels.

But mistress temptation is cruellest to those who know they can't have her and for Slater, being part of a Maroons build-up in any other role other than as a player only exacerbated his feelings of loss as he wondered whether he would ever play for Queensland again.

"It just reiterated to myself that I wasn't ready to give up playing State of Origin," Slater said ahead of his 28th Origin for Queensland and first since Game Two of the 2015 series.

"As good as it was to be involved in last year's series I felt that 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."

Close friend and Storm and Queensland teammate Cameron Smith never doubted that Slater would play for Queensland again; his greatest fear was that he would never see one of the game's all-time greats grace the field at all.

"His shoulder was in a pretty ordinary state," said Smith, who incredibly has shared not only careers together but a birthdate for the past 34 years and three days.

"I don't know if he's really let on just how bad it was but he was pretty close to not getting the opportunity to play again.

"For him to put in the amount of work that he did put in and the hours that he had in his rehabilitation and doing his small exercises on his upper body to get himself right was really remarkable.

"I saw that happen and even before he got into that rehab stage, to sit through all of last year where his club side was going so well, made a grand final, was extremely hard for him.

"For him to get back and play elite rugby league again is the most impressive thing for me."

Whether it was confidence or hope, Slater always maintained belief that he would play again but was not prepared to put the game ahead of his long-term health and future life with his family.

The first and most important task was getting his shoulder back to a point where he could lift his two children again pain-free; everything else that has followed has been a bonus that he appreciates more than at any other time in his distinguished career.

"When something's taken away from you you focus on what you really enjoy about it," said Slater.

"The only consideration [of retirement] was outside my control. If it was outside my control and my shoulder wasn't fit enough to come back – and there were certainly stages where I questioned that – that was certainly a possibility.

"Within my control I always wanted to get back and play. That was a driving force for me and I wasn't ready to finish up just yet. That was the main reason why I worked so hard to get back to where I am.

"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.

"I've been able to do that and now I'm fortunate enough to wear a Maroon jersey again which I've always really enjoyed doing."

Given his form since returning for the Storm in Round 3 (21 offloads, five tries, 53 tackle busts, nine line-break assists, 11 try assists and seven line breaks in 11 games) and the resumption of his almost telepathic connection to Smith and Cooper Cronk, the Blues are expecting to see the best of Billy again.

As is the Queensland captain.

"We've practised a few different things with Billy out the back; I just hope we get the opportunity to use him up," said Smith.

"The thing about Bill is that he's got genuine speed out the back of our plays and that's the thing that does worry defenders, speed.

"I've played my entire career with Billy at fullback and he's one of the greatest players to have played our game. Not only in his position, he's one of the greatest players of all time. To have him there is great and I'm really looking forward to seeing him playing for Queensland again.

"I'm sure he's primed himself for a really big one this Wednesday."

New South Wales, you've been warned.