Monday 23 October 2017 / 11:36 AM

LEAGUE PASSPORT: BILLY CAN TAKE ‘ROOS TO NEW LEVEL

Billy Slater’s possible return to the Australian team doesn’t bode well for the Kiwis, who have gone backwards under David Kidwell. But history has a way of tempering this, says ANDREW MARMONT.

Champion fullbacks don’t come any better than Melbourne’s maestro, Billy Slater. After two years of rehabilitation from injuries, he’s returned to the NRL without any issues. He’s still got his elusiveness. His timing. His game sense.

Throw him into an already firing team like the Kangaroos and they must be favourites to take out the Anzac Test once again.

Slater’s performances at Test, Origin and NRL level compare him favourably to Australia’s best fullbacks in their history. His courage, willingness to attack and put his body up against the brutes of today’s game will ensure despite what happens in the last few years of his professional career, Slater should be viewed as one of the greats.

So does he slot straight back in as the Australian No.1? As well as Darius Boyd played in Slater’s absence, particularly in the Four Nations last year, there is a compelling case to create a space for the Storm fullback.

This leaves Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga with a major (and enviable) headache: where to accommodate the likes of Boyd, Josh Dugan, Valentine Holmes or Josh Mansour?

The early mail is Slater will be overlooked for this Test, instead coming into contention for a World Cup recall. But long-time Queensland coach Meninga knows Slater’s capabilities better than most. 

What impressed most about Australia’s performances last year was their dedication. They really bought into Meninga’s vision about creating a legacy and holding the Kangaroos jersey in the esteem it deserves.

There were pictures circulating on social media showing the team cleaning up the dressing room after one of their matches, taking a leaf out of the All Blacks’ book. They were a happy, cohesive team.

Let’s focus on ‘cohesion’ for a moment.

Think back to the 2014 Four Nations, and the 2015 Anzac Test. The Kiwis, under Stephen Kearney, played the best football they’ve played ever – certainly from a consistency perspective. The Australians hit a rut. They were out-enthused. They had the same players, but suffered different results. Something had to change.

In 2016, both teams had a reversal. Different coaches, different results. David Kidwell didn’t get the cohesion right. Maybe he didn’t have the right staff. He was thrown with only a couple of weeks to plan and prepare – if he got a chance to do this at all.

The Kangaroos played their best football since, well, the 2013 World Cup, when they were immensely good.

Fox Sports’ NRL360 showed a clip of former Wallaby prop Ben Darwin, while promoting his sports analytics business Gain Line, speaking about how important cohesion is to a team’s performance. Without cohesion, you can have the most expensive gym facilities, the best coach and the best players and still lose.

Kidwell needs to find his team’s cohesion. He’s made some changes, with Shane Richardson and Steve McNamara joining his staff. That’s a start. He’ll probably have Kieran Foran back – a major boost – as well as Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Simon Mannering.

At the moment, Australia has both the player availability and the right team cohesion. New Zealand need to have a major reversal of their poor 2016 to get near this Australian side.

Slater, a veteran of 25 Tests, has slotted back in brilliantly at the back for the high-flying Storm, despite playing just one game in almost two years before his Round 3 return.

Tonight, he lines up in the traditional ANZAC Day clash with the Warriors, a match that began all of his shoulder problems back in 2015. After conquering that demon, forcing his way back into the Australian side could be the next item he ticks off a late-career bucket list. 

Whatever the result in two Fridays’ time, enjoy watching (hopefully) Billy Slater back in the green and gold. He’s that good.

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About the author

Andrew Marmont

Andrew is a freelance writer, producer and presenter. He writes for Big League, Rugby League World and Inside Sport. His book ‘Their Finest Hour: A History of the Rugby League World Cup in 10 Matches’ will be published in July 2017

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