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For & Against: Will Tedesco outshine Slater?

James Tedesco is arguably the best rugby league player on the planet today, a premiership-winner and representative star who has thrived on every stage – but will he go down as the greatest No.1 of all?

A year ago Tedesco was named Dally M Player and Fullback of the Year for his feats for the Sydney Roosters and won the Wally Lewis Medal as State of Origin's best player, and the 27-year-old this week signed a new deal keeping him at the Triclours through to the end of the 2024 season.

But at the end of his career will he go down in history as a better player than the man he replaced as Kangaroos fullback, Storm legend Billy Slater?

Slater himself revolutionised the custodian role and enjoyed a hugely successful career with a powerhouse club and the greatest Queensland side of all. But will his feats be eclipsed by Tedesco?

In this week's For & Against, Chris Kennedy and Paul Zalunardo kick off the great fullback debate.

Will James Tedesco be remembered as a better player than Billy Slater?

For - reporter Chris Kennedy

Let me say at the outset that speaking right now, I can honestly say Billy Slater is the best fullback I have ever seen play and the greatest fullback of the modern era.  

Slater redefined how a fullback should play in the modern game, which is something we are unlikely to be saying about James Tedesco (or any other fullback for that matter) for a long time.  

So for Tedesco to eventually retire being considered an even greater player, he's going to have to maintain something like the dominance we've seen from him at the Roosters over the past three years for the rest of his career. 

However I would argue that's a genuine possibility.

At his best – and for the past three years we've seen almost nothing but his best – Tedesco is on par with Slater in terms of playing to team structure, ball-playing and creativity, and support play – with a greater degree of physical dominance.  

Slater's evasiveness and raw speed are hard to top but Tedesco also has blinding acceleration and physically is so tough to stop that he busts tackles pretty much at will. He breaks far more tackles than Slater ever did and churns through far more metres.

He may not redefine how a fullback plays but he is in the process of setting the standard by which all other No.1s are measured – run 200 metres per game, score and set up tries, set the defensive line and be one of the team's main organisers and creators.  

One of the key components of measuring a player's greatness is their ability to influence their teams to win but this is a tough metric when comparing these two stars.  

Slater won 70% of his 319 NRL games but spent most of the first seven years of his career in a star-studded Storm side that was being artificially held together outside the bounds of the rules of the game, whereas Tedesco's first six years were at a Wests Tigers club with few stars that struggled to attract top-line talent. 

James Tedesco's 2020 season highlights

That is not to take anything away from Slater's stunning legacy but just to point out that as a flat metric, career win rates will not tell a reliable story in comparing the two.  

As it stands, each has two premiership wins and with 27-year-old Tedesco having just signed a long extension at the Roosters, there is every chance he finishes with at least one or two more premierships than Slater.  

In terms of try-scoring, Slater's mark of 190 will be almost impossible to catch; he scored at a rate of six tries per 10 games through a long career. Tedesco isn't far off – he goes at about 5.5 tries per 10 games (and it's an almost identical rate for his time at both the Tigers and Roosters) but crossing the stripe is just one of many important facets of fullback play. 

Slater busted tackles at a rate of four per game through his career, with five seasons of 100+ tackle breaks out of 16. Tedesco busts 6.4 per game over his career (and 6.8 since moving to the Roosters), going at 100+ every year since 2015. Slater averaged 130 metres per game over his career and never averaged more than 150 in a season; Tedesco averages 172 which goes up to 207 in his three years at the Roosters, and has averaged 150+ in five of the past six years. 

In terms of try assists they are dead level; each averages 0.54 try assists per match. 

In terms of accolades – each player currently has one Dally M win, a mark Tedesco will finish top in if he wins one more through the rest of his career.  

In four full Origin series, Tedesco has two Brad Fittler medals for being the Blues' best and one Wally Lewis medal for player of the series. Slater has two Wally Lewis medals although the second of those – in 2018 – came in highly contentious circumstances and could easily have gone to Tedesco. 

Tedesco needs just one more Dally M fullback of the year gong to level Slater's three, and could well pull away over the coming years. However Slater retired with two Clive Churchill Medals (the award from 2009 stands even if the premiership itself was stripped), a mark Tedesco is long odds to catch given how rare those awards are.  

There is more to any players' game than raw stats but by most attacking metrics Tedesco is more dominant than Slater and in terms of awards there is every chance he finishes level or ahead in most categories. He has spent the past three years as arguably the best player on the planet and the best custodian without question. Another six years of this form and Tedesco will retire as the greatest fullback of the modern era.  

All of Tedesco's tries from 2019

Against - sub-editor Paul Zalunardo

Over a 16-year body of work, Billy Slater did more than just be the best fullback many have seen – he changed the position as we know it.

Being safe as a bank when fielding kicks was just the start, he boasted supreme ball-running skills and the ability to chime into a backline at just the right time. His underrated ability to organise a defensive line was another feature.

Also, let's not forget about a competitive streak that inspired those around him, even if it at times drifted over the line of what is permissible within the rules.

To boil it down, he did it all. He also won a lot of games, and awards, in doing so.

Six grand final appearance for four wins (two of those premierships were later stripped for salary cap indiscretions) came while playing 319 games for the Storm. A winning percentage of just north of 70 and 190 tries are remarkable feats.

Yeah, sure he had plenty of help, but no one player has ever done things on their own in rugby league.

At Test level, Slater won 27 of the 30 Tests matches he played in while also scoring 27 tries.

On the Origin stage, he featured in the final six years of Queensland's memorable run of eight straight titles and finished his career in Maroon by playing a role in eight series wins.

Billy Slater on his Origin legacy

The mastery of James Tedesco over recent years cannot be questioned, but let's not forget that as recently as 2018 Slater was still in the conversation for the premier No.1 in the game.

He retired after winning the 2018 grand final, and since then Tedesco has undoubtedly been the game's top fullback.

For Tedesco to overtake Slater's body of work he is going to need hope the Roosters remain a powerhouse and he continues to shine. After a run of injuries, and some middling-at-best Wests Tigers teams during his first six seasons in the NRL, he has a mountain of catching-up to do.

Tedesco won just 31 of the 90 matches he played as for the Tigers, and while things have improved markedly at the Roosters (67% winning rate from 68 matches) it is still just shy of Slater's success rate over more than 300 matches.

It is a near-certainty Tedesco will be remembered as one of the game's great No.1s when he hangs up his boots but eclipsing Slater looks a bridge too far.

A legend retires - Slater's career highlights

Slater's individual awards

  • Dally M Fullback Of The Year - 2008, 2011, 2017
  • Golden Boot Award - 2008
  • RLIF Fullback Of The Year - 2008, 2011
  • RLIF Player Of The Year - 2008, 2011
  • RLW Player of the Year - 2008
  • Clive Churchill Medal - 2009, 2017
  • Dally M Representative Player Of The Year - 2010
  • Wally Lewis Medal - 2010, 2018
  • Dally M Player Of The Year - 2011
  • Ron McAuliffe Medal - 2018

Tedesco's individual awards

  • Dally M Fullback Of The Year - 2016, 2019
  • RLPA Player of the Year - 2017
  • Brad Fittler Medal - 2018, 2019
  • Dally M Player Of The Year - 2019
  • Wally Lewis Medal - 2019
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