The elite quartet - Wayne Bennett, Mal Meninga, Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith - have all offered their unqualified support for the retired Melbourne Storm fullback to take charge of the Maroons this year.
Bennett, who steered an underdog Queensland team to win last year’s title, was expected to retain the position. However, the QRL prefers a full-time coach, leading Bennett to announce last week he would concentrate on coaching the Rabbitohs in his final season at Redfern.
QRL president Bruce Hatcher and managing director Rob Moore have met with Paul Green, the premiership-winning North Queensland coach sacked by the Cowboys last season.
However, a bloc of QRL directors insist on a Maroons coach who will remain dedicated to the post for three years and won’t seek a release to take up an NRL club post, as former Queensland coach Kevin Walters did before joining the Broncos.
Hatcher has publicly conceded Green’s preference to return to an NRL club within a year, the Sharks being a possibility. While Hatcher has endorsed the return of some of the brilliant players – Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Slater and Smith – who led Queensland to dominate Origin for a decade, he sees their role initially as assistants under Green.
But a rival bloc of QRL directors believe Slater is ready to coach Queensland now, and Bennett was one of the first to offer support.
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga, who assisted Bennett in Queensland’s surprise 2020 victory, also backs Slater.
Slater’s premiership-winning coach, Craig Bellamy, together with his captain, Cameron Smith, believe Slater could succeed at Origin level immediately.
While Slater’s detractors will say “he isn’t ready”, no coach is ever “ready” for Origin. But three of his prominent supporters – Bennett, Meninga and Bellamy- have all coached at that level, while his fourth backer, Smith, captained Queensland to historic success.
It’s expected their endorsement of the Maroons and Slater as an instant fix will create a groundswell of support.
Many former champions don’t succeed as coaches because their skills are instinctive and they lack the patience to communicate with players of lesser ability. Furthermore, they don’t devote as much time to preparation as is necessary.
Slater is a rare player in the sense he was both instinctive and highly prepared, analysing game film long after others had left the clubhouse.
He is also empathetic to the inexperience of emerging players, coaching the Storm’s youngsters, as well as offering advice at AFL club St Kilda.
Origin football, consisting of three highly intense games in the middle of the season, is a different beast to the NRL club competition and it requires as one observer said, “an appetite for risk.”
Slater is willing to gamble, as he did in the 2008 World Cup final in Brisbane when he threw a suicidal pass in the last 20 minutes, effectively gifting New Zealand the victory. But his daring to be different has also resulted in scores of last minute victories for the Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos.
As one powerbroker said, “Paul Green will coach the team not to lose. Billy Slater will coach the team to win.”
Furthermore, Slater has no immediate ambition for NRL football and would be able to devote at least three years to the role.
“He also offers longevity and stability,” the influential observer said. “He will bring Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston back. This is an opportunity of a lifetime to recall the players who gave Queensland their unparalleled success a few years back.”
Queenslanders like to think they have a mortgage on passion and, if it is the secret ingredient to Origin success, Slater exudes it.
His former Melbourne and Queensland captain, Smith, also possesses passion, but he internalises it, offering glimpses of his desire when he lifts the shutters on the field.
But on football days, passion stalks Slater like a shadow: in the dressing room for the rookies to see, on the training field to maintain the attention of the veterans, and in the post-game analysis where he hides from no-one.
As one of Slater’s backers said when talking about his infectious enthusiasm, “Dour blokes don’t win Origin.”
The QRL board will meet in two weeks to either endorse Hatcher’s preference for Green, or join an expected tide of support for Slater.