Billy Slater’s legendary 2004 chip and chase occupies a permanent place on State of Origin highlights reels. It marked the announcement of a freakish talent capable of special things on rugby league’s biggest stage. And, as he relates in autobiography Billy Slater, it was a moment of self-realisation that he was capable at the elite level. But also, looking back, as a football achievement it was indicative of an early phase of his illustrious career – running purely on instinct and adrenaline – that he would be soon forced to leave behind. Here, Slater walks us through those memorable seconds.
It is the nature of professional sport that there are single moments that come to define an athlete. For all you might have achieved as a player and a person, and all you might become, there will be one image that lingers in the minds of those who have watched you. It might be a cover drive that brings up a century; a stunning goal in soccer; a soaring high mark in an AFL game. If there is a moment that has defined my career, for many supporters it is a try I scored in my second representative game for Queensland: the chip and chase.
I don’t seek out that footage but I still see it a lot. I might sit down at a sponsor’s function and they will show it as part of a highlights package on a big screen. I would be lying if I said it didn’t send a tingle down my spine, especially when I am in camp preparing for State of Origin. The try happened that long ago, 16 June 2004 – just two days before my twenty-first birthday – that the skinny long-haired kid on the screen could be someone else. But the chip and chase perfectly encapsulates the player and the person I was at the time.
It happened in the second game of my debut State of Origin series, which was played in Brisbane. We had lost Game I, the series was on the line and we were trailing 12–10 in the second half. Darren Lockyer had the ball at about midfield. I saw some space behind the line and I put up my hand to indicate a kick was on. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but like all great players Locky knows everything that is happening around him and synchronises himself with his teammates. Locky saw me coming and dinked a kick in behind the New South Wales defence. I sprinted through and picked up the ball on the first bounce, and from there it was just pure instinct. New South Wales fullback Anthony Minichiello was coming across so I stepped off my stronger left foot. But Minichiello read the play and had me covered, so I reflexively put the ball on my right boot. I don’t know why. I don’t even know what the tackle count was. Maybe it was the advice Craig Bellamy had given me not to second-guess myself when I got into the clear. But I kicked it over Minichiello’s head and there was a footrace to the ball. I got the bounce and dived over the line.
It was an incredible moment. When I stood up you could see my excitement before I was engulfed by five or six teammates. In the crowd a sign caught my eye. It said ‘Go Billy! Innisfail’. Again, it happened so early in my career it feels like half a century ago. I’ve grown so much as a person and a footballer since then. But on that day the chip and chase try was purely me. I didn’t think that much about my football, I just played on instinct and reaction. That approach had taken me from being a kid sitting at home watching Alfie Langer win big games to doing something Alfie would have done on the biggest stage. I just couldn’t believe it was me. In some ways, I still can’t.