Melbourne legend Billy Slater is leaving rugby league on his own terms – as the game’s best fullback.
Sitting alongside coach Craig Bellamy, an emotional Slater ended months of speculation on Wednesday when he confirmed that after 16 NRL seasons with the Storm, 2018 would be his last.
He bows out with a bulging trophy cabinet that includes two NRL premierships, two Clive Churchill Medals, a Dally M Medal and two Wally Lewis Medals – the latest from this year’s State of Origin series.
The 35-year-old said while he felt he physically could have played on he was certain he was making the right decision.
After missing half of the 2015 season and all of 2016 due to two shoulder reconstructions, Slater worked his way back to the top of the game.
He said being able to make the final call had been important.
“Two years ago I nearly had to finish due to a shoulder injury and that would have really sunk me,” Slater said.
“I wasn’t ready to finish then and now my body is still allowing me to play at this standard … but I would hate to get halfway through a year and lose that and want to put my body on the line 100 per cent.
“I don’t want to empty the tank and then call it a day – I’d rather have a little bit in reserve.”
Bellamy said Slater should be remembered as the game’s best ever fullback.
“I’ve seen a lot of real good ones and played with some as well but I rate Billy right at the top with a gap between first and second,” Bellamy said.
“He’s been that influential as a fullback he’s changed the way they’ve played and the big thing for me is how consistent he’s been over such a long period of time and to me that’s greatness.”
Rating Slater as one of the smartest and most hard-working players in the game, Bellamy said he would have liked Slater to go on.
“I wanted to keep watching him play and to keep coaching him but that’s a selfish attitude,” Bellamy said.
“He’s made the right decision.”
Slater choked back tears as he thanked Bellamy and credited long-time teammates Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, now with the Sydney Roosters, for pushing him to realise his potential.
“Not only have you guys created opportunities for me on the field, but when your peers drive themselves to be the best and they continually succeed – that’s infectious,” Slater said.
“This is why you two have had the greatest influence on my career.”
While Bellamy has recommitted to the Storm, Smith is considering a one-year offer but regardless Slater felt the future was bright.
Slater is planning to stay involved with the Storm as a part-time coach, more media work and to spend more time in his burgeoning thoroughbred breeding business.