Fateful phone call that shaped Origin history

It was February 2001 and a 17-year-old Innisfail kid by the name of Billy Slater wanted to give rugby league one final crack.

By June that year he would be offered a contract with the Melbourne Storm.

Having just returned to North Queensland after six months of mucking out Gai Waterhouse's Sydney stables and riding trackwork under the cover of darkness, Slater urged his father Ron to ring his former club, Redcliffe, and get him a start.

A phone call to the then CEO Steve Bleakley ensued but given the Colts season was just two weeks from kicking off Ron was told that Redcliffe's squad had been selected and that he might like to try Norths instead.

"My uncle Tommy Slater knew a guy that was working in the bar at Brisbane Norths so he spoke to him who spoke to Mark Murray," Slater tells NRL.com of the fateful phone call.

"He said they had their last trial this weekend and if I could get down there for that that they'd give me a trial."

Billy and his cousin James weighed up whether to fly down for game day or to pack the car and set off on a 20-hour one-way journey from Innisfail to Brisbane to chase a dream.

"We decided to pack up and drove down to Brisbane. We left at 4.30 in the morning, stopped somewhere overnight and then next day finished it off and got to Brisbane about lunchtime on Friday," says Slater ahead of his 29th Origin match for Queensland on Wednesday night.

"We had a training run and then we played on the Saturday. We sat on the bench and ended up playing and the rest is history.

"I played on the wing. I was filthy. I'd never played on the wing before and I was out there kicking stones but I scored a try and then the following week was Round 1.

"They put me in the centres – I'd always played in the halves or hooker – so I'd always had the ball in my hands but they put me in the centres and I played outside Cooper Cronk."

And thus the 'big three' was formed.

 


It is one of rugby league's most extraordinary tales that a footy-obsessed kid from Logan, a rugby boy from an elite Brisbane private school and a fleet-footed jockey-to-be from up north could all be pitched in to the same team at the same time as teenagers and spend the next 15 years forging three of the game's greatest careers side by side in AFL heartland.

The chemistry was instant, even if Slater was somewhat put out at having to play outside Cronk and not wear the No.7 jersey himself.

"Billy came as a halfback or a five-eighth and he wanted his hands on the ball and he still has that way that he plays now," Cronk recalls. "He just wants his hands on the ball and to be involved.

"I was the halfback in the Norths team and he might have been a bit dirty that he wasn't playing there and he played in the centres.

"He played on my side and with his speed, acceleration and footwork I didn't have to do too much.

"All I did was put the ball out in front and the next minute he ran around the centre for 34 tries.

"Who would have thought that myself, Cameron [Smith] and Billy would all have arrived at Brisbane Norths... I can't explain why that happened and what's happened now."

Now there's every chance that the path that inexplicably brought them together could end at the same destination with Slater and Cronk both unclear about their futures.

This could very well be the curtain call for two of the Maroons' most loyal and successful servants while the only certainty around 2018 is that for the first time in 15 years they won't be living in the same city.

Such as the face that has remained ageless despite more than a decade in one of sport's toughest arenas, Slater says mentally he could play on "forever", it's whether his body can sustain it for one more year that will determine his playing future.

As for the phone call from Uncle Tommy that started it all, Slater admits that he has no idea how the story would have played out without it.

"There are so many things – even if we decided not to go down – who knows what would have happened," said Slater.

"They're the decisions you make and you enjoy the ride."