MVP: Billy Slater (Melbourne Storm; Fullback)

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While I’ve written about Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk in a previous post, and their collective contribution to the Storm, the Maroons and the Kangaroos, I’d like to take a bit of time to focus on each of these plays individually, starting with Billy Slater. Now that so much time has passed, I’m not sure whether Slater was one of the first players I started following or whether he’s one of those players whose fame spreads so far beyond the game that you kind of end up following just by following the sports news cycle more generally. What I can say is that there’s no other player whose career feels so familiar, or so inextricable fro my enjoyment of NRL, as well as no other player who seems to summarise the spirit of the game, for better or for worse.

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Of course, it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that Slater is one of the greatest fullbacks of all time, great enough to command the No. 1 position in what is arguably the greatest Maroons dynasty of all time, and decorated with about as many honours as a Rugby League player can hope to achieve. And yet, while Slater may be one of the best players in the world, as well as one of the most iconic players in the NRL, he’s got a very different kind of charisma from players like Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis – the only other Maroons players, apart from Cooper Cronk, who are at his level – with the result that he hasn’t quite turned into a figurehead for the game in exactly the same way they have, even if he often feels even more identified with it. In part, that’s simply because Smith, Thurston and Inglis are pretty big, tall players, and tend to have a more conventionally commanding presence on the field, as well as a natural kind of gravity that has made them obvious choices for captaincy duties. At the same time, and despite a few exceptions, all three of these players have tended to stay clear of drama on the field, turning them into ambassadors for the game in ways that don’t fully correlate to Slater’s more complex and curious media presence and persona.

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Admittedly, in the last half-decade, both Slater and Inglis have converged more and more with Smith and Thurston in terms of their respective media profiles, just as the Maroons have managed to consolidate more and more with each round of Origin, seeming to reach perfection every time they face the Blues only to one-up themselves next time it comes around. Concomitantly, Slater’s association with Cronk, and the sense of Slater and Cronk as a kind of unofficial halves pair, has tended to diminish as well, even if it’s still residually there. Once upon a time, Billy and Cooper – Booper – felt at a bit of a remove from the high-flying media surrounding their Storm and Maroons buddies – Slater because he was a little too rough around the edges, Cronk because he was so aloof and elusive, albeit blessed with a natural grace at the same time that distinguished him from the more passive-aggressive quietness of, say, Darius Boyd. In many ways, Cronk still is one of the NRL’s greatest enigmas, playing with the same inscrutable purpose that Wayne Bennett brings to his coaching, which has often made me wonder how Cronk might look on Bennett. More on that in the post on Cronk, but for now it’s enough to point out that even this silent giant has become a little more vocal in recent years, as the Maroons dynasty has tended to inevitably smooth out and streamline the quirks of its individual components.

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Yet while the Maroons machine has only continued to refine itself, there’s also something about Slater, specifically, that resists being streamlined or sanitised too much. Given his extraordinarily decorated career, it’s easy to forget that this was one of the NRL’s grubbiest players, with Slater and Steve Matai often seeming to be neck-and-neck in the late 00s in their determination to stretch the boundaries of Rugby League about as far as it could go. Sitting down to watch a match with Matai or Slater – or both – you often found yourself asking: how dirty is too dirty? For answer, the limit probably came with his infamous sledge on Cory Paterson’s clinical depression in 2010, but that was just one final flashpoint in a sledgy, niggly, grubby style of play that had built around his game for a good couple of years, and would perhaps have become an even greater part of his persona had he not been superseded in the early 00s by Michael Ennis, the most persistent and provocative niggler of the new millennium.

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In fact, looking back on players like Slater, Matai and Ennis suggests that there’s been a bit of a decrease in sledgy play of late, or at least a dearth of players who truly have thge niggle in their bones. Sure, there are still some big sledges, such as Mitchell Moses’ ill-advised homophobic moment a couple of years ago, just as there are players like Josh Reynolds, who seem to have inherited the spirit of the niggle from these former icons. Even a player like Jeynolds, though, doesn’t really seem to be a niggler at heart, making you wonder whether his cheeky style of play is more about continuing the legacy of Ennis at Canterbury-Bankstown, a way of establishing himself with a Bulldogs lineage that’s even more important now that Hodkinson’s left for the Knights. While it would be too blunt to suggest that the niggle has become a kind of way of self-branding, there is also a sense in which a player like Jeynolds is consciously adopting it as a prefabricated role, in a diluted form that paradoxically allows him to one of the most restrained and judicious sledgers of his era, at least in comparison to some of Slater and Ennis’ blowouts.

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Of course, Origin is still something of a sledgefest, a chance for players to let loose with invective that would never be tolerated on the regular footy field. At the same time, though, it’s kind of expected that Origin will be a sledgefest – it’s an integral part of the experience – which means that the grubby, sledgy, niggly occur tend to feel a bit toned down or artificial compared to what transpires in regular matches. Less dirty football than a kind of hermetically contained performance of dirty football, Origin feels like a safe space in which players and fans alike can indulge in the dirtiest parts of the game in a restricted kind of way. Yet even Origin has become a bit tamer in recent years, as the Maroons’ supremacy has left them with nothing to prove, and no need to start or engage with the kinds of chest-beating extravaganzas that were once needed to motivate themselves against the Blues. There was something refreshing, then, about the smackdown between Slater and James Tamou in Game 2 this year, not only because that level of pubescent petulance is perhaps what the Blues really need at this point to maintain their drive and break through a ten-year Queensland defence, but also because it demonstrated that even in his movement towards being a kind of venerable elder of the game, Slater hasn’t quite lost that grubbiness that defined so much of his style in the first place.

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I’ve wondered quite a bit about why and how this dirty element – and especially the culture of sledging – has vanished from the game over the last decade, since it’s something that other pundits have seemed to notice as well. The easiest and most flattering interpretation is the the NRL has somehow become more “civilised” or at least got itself more in sync with the image management and quality control of the post-Gallop era. However, I don’t find this particularly convincing, not merely because I don’t think a game or culture changes overnight, but also because it feels as if there has been just as much player scandal, misbehaviour and plain stupidity off the field over the last few years, with the Raiders, in particular, having gone through a state of utter crisis in their inability to rein in players like Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson and Joel Monaghan – and Todd Carney, if you go back a bit further – who seemed determined to undercut every advancement that the NRL Integrity Unit had supposedly made in the wake of the Bulldogs crisis of 2004.

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In many ways, this period in the Raiders’ history has become an iconic one for the game as a whole, since this was arguably the first moment in the evolution of NRL scandal in which a club’s shame played out on social media in such an emphatic way. While their infractions were various, what Dugan, Ferguson and Monaghan all shared was a compulsion to post about it on social media. Of course, the mediation of NRL scandal is nothing new, from Darius Boyd, Sam Thaiday and Karmichael Hunt’s alleged mobile phone video, to Chris Sandow’s Facebook rant, to the speculations earlier this year that Titans players were using codes text messages for drug meetups, in a kind of version of The Wire replayed as farce. However, the era of Twitter and Instagram – the two favoured platforms of NRL players and fans – has brought a new level of publicity, as well as a new level of visibility that allowed Canberra’s bad boys to make lewd gestures an unprecedented mass of people. At the same time, the growing convergence of visual and verbal platforms – again, especially evident on Twitter and Instagram – meant that these lewd gestures and the sledges, niggles and general grubbiness that inevitably gathered around them became available on one and the same screen.

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While Canberra may have copped it really bad, the situation at the Raiders was simply the vanguard of a Twitter and Instagram indiscretion that’s tended to trip up the most impulsive players – most spectacularly, in 2015, Issac Luke – into betraying something of the sledgy sensibility that was once shrouded on the field to the public at large. While NRL coverage is designed to leave the impression that no angle or perspective has been left out, and NRL refereeing decisions and increasingly based on videographic information, the field itself remains a pretty private place – something you realise, with a bit of a surprise, whenever you happen to catch a miced-up game, or even a fragment of a miced-up game. There’s a very good reason, then, why there are so few miced-up games – which would surely be the next logical step in NRL mediation and coverage – just as there’s a very good reason why even the most apparently respectable players typically refuse to be miced-up, especially during Origin or when there’s a lot at stake for them and their teammates.

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I guess what I’m trying to suggest is that the enormous availability of NRL sociability on digital media has meant that that grubby ambience and sledgy substrate to the game is more and more available to the public in an ongoing way, rather than restricted to the occasional outbursts that once made their way to us from the remote world of the field, often by way of gestures we could see rather than words we could hear, as occurred in the standoff between Thurston and Mitchell Pearce in the concluding round of Origin this year. In that sense, a great deal of the visceral pull of NRL social media must stem from the way in which it recreates that sense of being amongst it on the field – the only place cameras still can’t go – giving fans a peculiarly embodied experience of the game, and about the closest we’re likely to get, at the moment, to the intimacy of a bodycam. Similarly, this new wave of social media provides an outlet for players who are already a little bit sledgy to burn off some steam, although it’s admittedly a delicate balance and arguably only a matter of time before that brings their antics to a whole new level of visibility anyway.

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So where does Slater fit into all that? Well, Slater is a bit of a transitional figure in that he was one of the dirtiest players on the field around 2007-2008, just before this latest wave of social media became widespread, but he has also settled down over the last couple of years as well, at about the same time that platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become all but omniscient. Whereas Twitter and Instagram were perfectly timed to capture players like Dugan, Ferguson, Monaghan and Carney at their most volatile and lewd, these platforms also happened to coincide with a very different version of Slater – namely, the family ban, the health food advocate and, increasingly, the elder statesman of the game, and a mentor and role model within the Storm in particular. No other player has managed to age – or come of age – quite so elegantly on Instagram as Slater.

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In many ways, I see Slater’s appearance on Australia’s Top Athlete in 2009 and 2010 as the transition to this new media persona. Given that Slater won both years, and that the series folded in 2011, it feels, in retrospect, as if he was really the driving force behind the program’s popularity. Forced to compete in a series of challenges that pitted him against top representatives from Union, Aussie Rules, A-League, cricket and athletics, as well as Ironman and V8 legends, Slater was forced to become a spokesman and emblem for League within the wider Australian sporting landscape, shedding a great deal of the grubbiness that had previously characterised his persona to become something of an unofficial claim for League’s supremacy within Australian sports, while not streamlining himself too much in the process to prevent him bringing his own distinctively League charisma to this new setting either. At the same time, it felt as if Slater’s background in equestrian became a more integral part of his footy persona at this time as well, since he’d often refer to particular skills or physical attributes he’d managed to acquire from his horse-riding days in order to anticipate how he’d deal with the next challenge, or reflect upon how he’d handled the previous one.

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This rehabilitated media presence was exacerbated by the fact that Australia’s Top Athlete was one of the first Aussie reality shows to really emerge in tandem with Facebook as a medium, to the point where the only real announcement that the long-awaited fourth season had been cancelled was the removal of the series’ Facebook page. In some ways, that was a real shame, since this was a venue where, week after week, sports fans and fans of the show had formed a temporary sense of community that anticipated the rise of more elaborate discussion sites along the lines of Reddit, or at least Reddit in its current incarnation. If Slater was a footy star of the age of Facebook, then his appearance on Australia’s Top Model also felt like the moment at which he’d come of age and exhausted the medium in the process, using the series and the corresponding page to launch a new family-friendly version of himself that ensured him a whole new cache when he joined Twitter in 2012 and Instagram shortly after.

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Since then, Slater’s online media presence has been nothing if not tasteful. First and foremost, there’s a family-centric vibe that seems pretty far removed from the halcyon days of Billy the Kid, while his actual Twitter and Instagram profiles are more or less synced with those of his wife, Nicole, whose artistic career seems to have blossomed in the last couple of years as well. Secondly, there has been a greater movement towards promotion and sponsorship, but of a kind that makes Slater seem – paradoxically – more down-to-earth and relatable than ever before, with most of his gigs tending to involve health foods, fitness initiatives and the wider NRL community. Thirdly, the renewed image of Slater the equestrian champion has tended to imbue him with something of the prestige of horse-racing as well, with many of his group photos and party shots taking on the glamour of race day, Melbourne Storm meets Melbourne Cup. In the Australian sporting imagination, no two specialties are further apart, class-wise, than equestrian and League, and yet Slater has managed to bridge the two in the most elegant and economical of ways.

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And yet, as Slater’s biff with Tamou in Origin 2 this year suggests, something of Billy the Kid inevitably remains as well, traces of the player who managed to throw a couple of punches at Jason Nightingale, kicking John Skandalis or throwing Ryan Cross. If Slater continues to fascinate players and fans alike, it’s not simply because of his extraordinary accumulation of achievements, but because of this way in which also feels like an emblem of an old-fashioned, on-field sledge mentality that hasn’t been entirely incorporated into social media. At his most volatile and visceral, Slater still stands as a testament, then, to the irreducible privacy of the footy field, even or especially in the midst of his most momentous games, and there’s something salutary about that for an age in which social media seems to have leached privacy from everything, even footy.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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