That Billy Slater will play his 300th NRL game on Saturday night is cause for warm celebration, surely even by those who still haven’t forgiven Melbourne Storm for its greatest sin — being better than everyone else.
That Slater had to overcome considerable odds in recent seasons to reach this significant milestone has added an endearing element to a career that seemed the fulfilment of incredible natural gifts; at least to those not familiar with his enormous work ethic.
Slater’s march to 300 was halted by a shoulder so mangled he once feared he would not be able to pick up his two children again, let alone endure the thumping tackles of musclebound front-rowers.
So raise a glass to Billy Slater, Melbourne Storm champion and, in many expert eyes, the greatest full-back of his era.
But at NRL headquarters there is one term that might not be added to the list of accolades for a man who will have played all 300 of his NRL games in purple — one-club player.
Slater’s statistical achievement will be recorded at a time when the NRL is attempting to change perceptions around the rapidly accelerating turnover of star players.
This after an off-season when there was so much human trafficking between clubs you half expected the United Nations to intervene.
The lead-in to the NRL season was, as ever, overshadowed by self-inflicted wounds.
In more recent times, new Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter Beattie’s inability to identify Cronulla’s nickname (a clue: there will be dozens of them circling you for your entire time at the ARLC) gave a free hit to the media crisis merchants lining up to take pot shots at the new boss.
This will have particularly delighted those club warlords still seething that they did not get representation in the independent ARLC board room — and, accordingly, replace the independence with self-interest.
Thus the NRL’s calculated pre-season celebration of high-profile players who might once have been derided as turncoats, traitors and mercenaries for changing clubs was at least partly lost in the white noise of media controversy.
So for those who missed it, a recap: Instead of bemoaning or ignoring that a significant increase in the salary cap and some exceptional circumstances had led to a battalion of high-profile players trading clubs, the NRL cleverly appealed to the optimism of the fans of clubs who had recruited new superstars.
Storm weren’t losing Cooper Cronk, the Roosters were gaining the wise, disciplined veteran who could take them to glory.
The Roosters weren’t losing Mitchell Pearce, the Knights were gaining the ultra-consistent club champion who might prove to be their best half since the Joey Johns era.
And so it went through Aaron Woods, James Graham, Ben Hunt, Matt Moylan, James Tedesco, Josh Reynolds and the rest of the all-star cast of the NRL’s off-season production of Trading Places.
The NRL and their media partners deserved credit for rebranding a traditional problem area as an opportunity.
For those promoting this new glass half-full approach to player movement, the NRL season could hardly have started better.
Some Newcastle Knights fans still burnt by the false hopes of the Nathan Tinkler-Wayne Bennett era were dubious about Pearce’s value.
Yet when he kicked the winning field goal in Friday night’s 19-18 victory over Manly, they were suddenly trying to decide where their One Game Wonder fitted beneath the Johns pair (Joey and Daniel), Jennifer Hawkins and Yahoo Serious on the list of great Novocastrians.
Mitchell Pearce kicks a game-winning field goal to endear himself to Newcastle fans. (AAP: Darren Pateman)
Cronk and ex-Tiger Tedesco didn’t have similar success with the Roosters. Yet the round one wins of their former clubs Melbourne and the Tigers (over the Roosters) could be spun as a message to fans mourning the defection of superstars — you don’t lose all hope when a champion walks out the door.
Of course, the NRL’s attempt to make a virtue of the rapid player movement is self-serving for reasons other than just comforting young fans whose player merchandise can be redundant before it comes out of the wrapping.
The NRL has failed to solve the problem — or, from outside the game, what seems like a problem — of players committing to new clubs mid-season.
By selling change as an exciting part of the game, perhaps the idea of a player serving out time with one club while already signed by another will not seem quite so bizarre.
The NRL certainly has a more mature approach to the inevitability of superstar transfers than the AFL, where out-of-contract players are forced to spend a season murmuring non-committal cliches about their futures rather than admitting their intention to leave.
The cynical might suggest the NRL’s track record on giving misbehaving players second — or in the case of Lodge, third — chances at a new club is another reason to market player “portability”.
You can see the statement now: “Todd Carney is not being rewarded with registration at a new club despite his poor behavioural record, he is giving the (name of new club) fans renewed hope.”
Meanwhile Billy Slater celebrates his 300th game with the Melbourne Storm as not merely a model one-club champion, but an increasingly rare reminder that they still exist.