9 June 2022 · Mazda Stories

BILLY SLATER THE HORSE WHISPERER

BY BEN SMITHURTH

Talking leadership and horsemanship with Mazda BT-50 driver Billy Slater—the greatest rugby league fullback of them all.

Horses have evolved alongside humans for at least three million years. The result, according to league legend and renowned cowboy Billy Slater, is a bond that’s almost spiritual, and definitely educational. “I think the deep connection is when you start thinking like a horse,” he says.

“If you think like a human it doesn’t work, because we’re wired differently,” says Slater. “A horse is a prey animal; everything is going to hurt them or kill them, that’s what their instincts are. So you’ve got to start thinking like them.

“It doesn't really matter what we do, whether we're towing the horse float, or going for a trail ride, whether we're feeding up the horses with a bit of hay out of the back of the ute, it’s perfect for life on the farm."

“But it’s also super convenient when we want to throw a few surfboards in the back and go down to the beach for the weekend.

“It just works in really well with our lifestyle and it's the perfect vehicle for us.”

Billy Slater Mazda BT-50 Thunder

“And that’s where you truly build that connection—when you start understanding their natural behaviours, what connects a horse with a horse.”

Slater’s love of riding horses, raising them and just being around them - he owns a farm, sometimes referred to as a ranch, outside Melbourne - has led to a similar bond with his Mazda BT-50. It’s a ute that makes his life easier, and provides plenty of horsepower of its own.

“The BT-50 is just extremely convenient for us,” Slater explains.

If Queensland re-establishes a State of Origin dynasty under Slater’s watch - he was appointed as coach of the Maroons last year, a hugely important and revered role in the Sunshine State - some credit will go to his decades of equine tutoring. “Working with horses has taught me a hell of a lot about patience, respect, connection, and leadership,” he says.

“It’s not as farfetched as you think.”

Billy should know. Having arrived in Sydney as a 16-year-old trackwork jockey for Gai Waterhouse (he’d been told he was too small for the NRL), ‘farfetched’ describes the bush-bred north Queenslander’s entire career.

While he’d become the greatest rugby league fullback of the modern era, Billy Slater was never a colossus—at least physically. He was not even an outsized personality, one of the everything’s-a-drama types that dominate rugby league’s back pages. Instead, he was a coach’s dream.

Cool under pressure, determined, analytical. Meticulously prepared.

Slater was picked for the Maroons at age 20. He was surprised. “I wasn’t a kid that grew up making all the rep sides,” he says. “The first time I got to represent Queensland was at State of Origin level.

“It happened really quick for me. You know, I was only a year and a half into my NRL career when I got the call to play for Queensland,” he says.

His first game for the Melbourne Storm (out of the 323 he would go on to play for them—Slater was a one-club man) was also the first for his only ever club coach, Craig Bellamy, whose current win-loss record, after more than 500 games, hovers above 70 percent.

(Even the story of that match was improbable: “After 20 minutes we were losing 22-nil, so I thought it was my first and last game!” he says. “But we ended up winning on the siren.”)

Bellamy and Slater’s shared success is no coincidence. Slater is a man familiar with golden eras, like his Storm coach, and his career Storm, Queensland and Australian teammates Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. But with minimal coaching experience of his own, State of Origin looms as an almighty challenge.

Slater is under no illusions. 

“The difference between playing and coaching is that when it gets to the game,” he says, “once that whistle blows you have virtually no impact on the outcome.”

Hence the importance of on-field leaders - something Slater knows all about, because he was one.

BillySlater Mazda BT-50

Slater led literally from the back, but he often spearheaded his teams’ attacking raids. He also returned kicks with such potency that he forced the NRL to change the rules. Slater so worried opposition coaches that they instructed their kickers to boot the ball dead on the last tackle, forcing the Storm to restart play with a 20-metre tap, rather than allowing him to catch and cart it back upfield.

“So, the rule-makers awarded an extra tackle and permitted quick taps,” wrote league scribe Roy Masters. “Suddenly, a team that kicked the ball over Slater’s head found themselves, seven tackles later, defending in front of their own posts.”

The only two pre-Slater fullbacks to equal the Melbourne custodian’s eventual dominance were also smaller men: Clive Churchill, the 76kg post-war genius dubbed ‘The Little Master’, and ’60s and ’70s St George icon, Graeme Langlands. But by the time Slater was picked by his state—on the wing—the flankers of the then-supreme NSW team had evolved into a series of towering, interchangeable brutalists whose guile, if any, was built on a bedrock of awesome power.

There was Luke Rooney, a 191cm and 98kg giant who’d once pined for Penrith on a rugby league sojourn to Prague for want of “good” pubs and a TAB. Or Rooney’s 105kg teammate Luke Lewis, passing time before an inevitable move into the forwards. Or former garbage man Matt King, 190cm and 100kg. Or son-of-a-gun Eric Grothe Jnr, who topped 107kg, stood 194cm.

Slater, who topped out at 89kg, wasn’t intimidated.

Partly because he was surrounded by strong leaders, like Smith, and Queensland patriarch Mal Meninga. And partly because he naturally understood how to get the most out of himself.

His rise to dominance, to ‘owning’ the Queensland No. 1 jersey for over a decade, revolutionised the custodian’s role while also keeping brilliant rival fullbacks—such as fellow Queenslander, the 191cm and 105kg superstar Greg Inglis—playing in the centres.

As a sportsman, “when you are on the journey you are never satisfied with where you’re at,” he says. “You can enjoy victories and it’s important to soak up those moments but I don’t think I was ever content, throughout my career. I was always looking to improve.”

As a budding coach, part of him is always thinking about the game—whether he’s behind the wheel, towing a horse float up the highway, surfing, or just riding a trail.

The State of Origin arena may be a baptism of fire, but Slater’s at home there. And having done it all for the Maroons, he’ll not need to ask his charges to perform any miracles he’s not demonstrated personally. Curious and meticulous, Slater is a born student. And both calm and measured, he’s a natural leader.

“It’s about understanding the animal—or the people—that you are dealing with,” he says.

“For example, there’s a pecking order in a herd, and horses need that pecking order. Horses are looking for leadership. So if you can show that leadership, and not through dictatorship, but through respect and connection, that’s where you build that bond, and then that partnership.

“I suppose it’s more about the patience and the connection that you build that gives you that leadership, rather than actually forcing it upon them. Does that make sense?”

Billy SlBilly Slater Mazda BT-50 Thunderater Mazda BT-50 Thunder