Fire still burns for refreshed Slater
Melbourne Storm football manager Frank Ponissi has declared evergreen fullback Billy Slater physically '100 per cent capable' of playing on into a 18th season in 2019.
Twelve months ago a cloud well and truly hung over Slater's future as he made his way back from consecutive shoulder reconstructions, but that time out of the game could prove a blessing in disguise with the 34-year-old returning in stunning form last year and potentially extending his career beyond this season.
Slater inked a one-year extension following Melbourne's 2017 premiership triumph, and last week returned to pre-season training just 51 days after playing in Australia's World Cup final win over England on December 2.
Ponissi is confident both Slater and champion skipper Cameron Smith will be on deck for February 16's World Club Challenge clash with Leeds Rhinos, and declared Slater's physical fitness no barrier to him playing on past his current contract.
"Bill's come back in fantastic condition this pre-season, he really has," Ponissi told NRL.com.
"I think that decision (on Slater's future) can only be answered by Bill. But having that year and a half out, in hindsight, it's certainly got him physically in great nick. It has and will extend his career.
I've still got that hunger to compete and better myself and that's what drives me.Billy Slater
"Physically, he is 100 per cent capable of playing on beyond 2018. I couldn't be surer of that, and he'll be good enough obviously to play on in 2019.
"What we can't answer is whether mentally and emotionally Bill is willing to go again, and only he can answer that."
Given contract talks with Slater hung in the balance right through last season, Ponissi is adamant the club won't talk any future plans until their star custodian is well into his stride in 2018.
The Storm's season opener against Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs on March 10 in Perth will double as Slater's 300th NRL game, a milestone that looked well beyond him when he was forced to sit out all but eight games of the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Slater, who has committed to rep duties with Queensland and Australia again this year, declared himself mentally refreshed after one of the longest club and representative seasons on record.
"That's the whole idea about getting away from footy at the end of the year, trying to freshen up mentally and iron out a few of the niggles that you've picked up along the season," Slater told Storm TV.
"I certainly did that and I've looked forward to coming back over the last couple of weeks.
"… I'm pretty self-motivating as a person. I've always had that drive to compete and I've still got that now. I suppose if I didn't have that I wouldn't be here.
"I've still got that hunger to compete and better myself and that's what drives me."
Fellow veteran Smith lobbed at Storm HQ on his own to start pre-season with the club's high performance unit while the rest of Melbourne's squad enjoyed an extended long weekend.
With his status as the game's most durable player confirmed by a litany of appearance records at all levels, Ponissi holds no concern that Smith could be underdone for next month's World Club Challenge against Leeds despite just over two weeks preparation.
"Cameron's keen and we're keen for him to play but we'll assess him over the next few weeks," Ponissi said.
"Cameron's not the type of bloke to let himself go, he's got a great engine built over 15 pre-seasons or more.
"He's not the type of player who needs that pre-season like some of the younger players do, it's our intention to play him.
"It's a game we pushed hard to have here in Melbourne and we want to have every chance of winning it – obviously with Cam playing that's more likely."
Ponissi declined to comment on a Fox Sports report that star five-eighth Cameron Munster had been disciplined by the Storm after an altercation with Kangaroos teammate Ben Hunt during the World Cup.
"All I will say about Cameron is he's come back to pre-season training in great shape and has relished the extra responsibility that's come his way," Ponissi said.
"He's basically our most experienced half now with Cooper (Cronk) gone and we're expecting a huge season from him this year."