NRL R24: Celebrating Billy

I first visited Melbourne in 2000, a lads trip from Canberra in a busted-up Camry that lost both reverse and fifth gear mid-trek as Rohan, Bommy, The Judge and I all took our turns holding the bastard in fifth as we chugged down the Hume.

It was the first time I had met Parko. We were all Burgmann boys but Parko had come and gone before I arrived that year. A road trip with five decent sized bodies in a busted car in sweltering heat sure helps you get to know someone though.

We were on our way to the Caulfield Cup and I’m fairly sure at one stage of that hazy day I leant on my new mate Parko for a monkey. It may have been an interminable ATM queue. It may have been a savage gambling loss. Who knows? Luckily, the reason is lost in time and probably somewhere in the old PA’s on Church Street.

Some eight years later I decided to make the move to Melbourne. Eight years in Canberra was enough. I had reached an uncomfortable level of comfort with the place, a rut of sorts, with everything just a little too easy. Sydney would have been the natural move but since that first Caulfield Cup run, Diatribe’s Cup, Melbourne has always seemed like the place for me.

It is something about the geography I think. I like the structure of the grid. The retro-vibe of the inner city suburbs also appeals.

It was a dangerous move from an aspiring rugby league writer. Melbourne is not the natural home of The Greatest Game of All and work for an unknown rugby league scribe would surely be thin on the ground.

But after three years in the southern capital, I feel like I was pushed here, against common sense, by some rugby league force. The ghost of Harry Sunderland, perhaps. Melbourne over the last three seasons has been very kind to me, at least in a rugby league sense.

I had been here one night, sleeping in the spare of my friends, Jamo and The Bear (now married), when I took my first trip to Olympic Park. It was a heavy afternoon, the clouds low and ominous, and the Storm towelled the Raiders 46-6. Billy Slater was magnificent, scoring a double.

It was the first time I had seen Billy on his home turf and I’m pleased it wasn’t the last.

The ground may have been a dilapidated mess-one I would hold a strange affection for even on its last freezing nights where you couldn’t feel your hands and your chances of seeing the whole field were about as great as a visiting team collecting the two points- but it housed three of the best players you would ever hope to see play rugby league.

Cameron Smith. Billy Slater. Cameron Cronk.

To watch those three players lead a team so disciplined, so strong in the fundamentals of what makes rugby league great, so brilliant, so capable of anything, has been an absolute privilege. To see them win the premiership in 2009, stand strong against the cruellest controversy in 2010, to fight back to a likely minor premiership in 2011, has been like having The Cavern Club as your local, circa early 1961.

I have somehow stumbled into greatness and been on hand to witness it, record it, breathe it in.

When the Storm hosted St George-Illawarra on Friday night- a monumental grudge match between the two best teams of the last five seasons who had not played in over 16 months- fullback Billy Slater was the centre of attention.

The former jockey turned superstar fullback, a player who now can comfortably be compared to the likes of Clive Churchill and Graeme Langlands when it comes to discussing the greatest custodians the game has ever known, was playing his 200th game for the Storm.

There is no player I would rather watch, in this era or last. He combines an unwavering competitiveness, a near-perfect grasp of the fundamentals and a dynamism only seen in athletic artists. A try tally of 123 (20th all-time) and an astonishing win rate of nearly 69% paint a pretty accurate picture.

I’m not alone in that view. Nearly 25,000 people filled AAMI Park, the wonderful new rugby league colosseum of Melbourne, to watch Billy play another big game. I went with Parko (he of the Camry), who was down from Canberra, and Jamo (he of the spare bed) and my flatmate Mik and Jason, a most generous bookmaker and product of the Cessnock Goannas.

Billy didn’t disappoint us. In a hard-fought affair, the brilliant Storm fullback was best afield. He was everywhere: enthusiastic, excitable, yelling, plotting, scheming.

It was a magnificent crowd, one of the best I have seen in Melbourne, and few would have left AAMI Park with any complaints as the two best defensive units in the NRL played out a finals-like match, where the tries were few and the tension palpable.

It could well have been a Grand Final, such was the intensity of the defence, the tryline desperation, the deep need to win.

The Dragons opened the scoring through Kyle Stanley midway through the first half. The utility had replaced Bronx Goodwin, himself a late inclusion, after Goodwin went down with what looked like a serious knee injury. Stanley was merely in the right spot after Matt Duffie didn’t show enough trust in his inside man, always a killer in a compressed defence.

The Storm hit back with a remarkably similar try to Anthony Quinn. The scores remained locked at six until Cameron Smith slotted a penalty right on the stroke of half-time.

The penalty was to prove decisive with not a point scored in the second half. The Storm had all the field position and all the ball in the second stanza but Cooper Cronk’s absence was telling as the usual crispness of the Storm’s attack was missing.

Luckily for Melbourne, Jamie Soward was a passenger again for the Dragons, again shirking the task under the high ball while missing a string of critical tackles.

When the final siren blared, we were all happy, except Jamo, a Dragons man. Even I managed a hearty cheer despite the Storm not covering the 2 ½ point, which would have meant a free night on the pots at the London Tavern.

But the gambling loss didn’t matter. It rarely seems to when I watch the Storm play. They are a team that transcends gambling and transcend the silly emotional flurries that come with opining over rugby league teams. They are a great team with some of the best players the game has ever known.

And so, when I head to the London after a Storm game, win or lose, cover or non-cover, it is usually with a smile. I’ve seen Billy and Cam and Cooper at their best and there is something pretty damned thrilling about seeing the best at their best.

MELBOURNE 8 (Tries: Quinn Goals: Smith 2/2)
ST GEORGE-ILLAWARRA 6 (Tries: Stanley Goals: Soward 1/1)

Venue: AAMI Park
Crowd: 24,081
Votes: 3-Slater (Mel) 2-Widdop (Mel) 1-Nightingale (Dra)
Milestone: Billy Slater 200 games


About Nick Tedeschi

Nick Tedeschi was the chief rugby league writer at Punting Ace for five years after a career in politics and bookmaking. He has written freelance for a number of organisations including Back Page Lead, Crikey and Betfair and now runs his own website. He writes an annual NRL betting preview and is a diehard Canterbury fan who lists Craig Polla-Mounter, David Stagg, Tony Grimaldi and Daryl Halligan as his favourite players.


  1. johnharms says:

    I think the holding of the Camry in fifth gear, while heading down the Hume to the Caulfield Cup will resonate with a few on this site.

    Sounds like a fascinating opening encounter for the Almanac’s coverage. Haven’t seen it yet, as I was in the Waterloo in Fortitude Valley, which I nearly failed to recognise, such is the renovation.

  2. The Camry yarn resonated with me…

    Great way to kick off the NRL coverage.

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