BILLY THE Kid versus Jack The Lad is a fascinating sub-plot to Friday’s Downer World Club Challenge.
Nothing seems to faze Leeds Rhinos’ teenage full-back Jack Walker, so it’s no surprise he is taking a clash with the world’s best in his stride.
Walker, 18, made his Rhinos debut 10 months ago and has 14 senior games under his belt. Opposite him for Melbourne Storm is Billy Slater, one of the greatest and most decorated full-backs in rugby league history.
Slater, 34, may no longer be the youngster his Wild West nickname suggests, but shows no sign of being in decline. NRL’s full-back of the year, he starred for Storm when they won the 2017 minor premiership and Grand Final and also featured in Queensland’s State of Origin triumph and the World Cup final when Australia defeated England.
He made his debut in 2003, the year Walker turned four and has played almost 300 times for Storm. Though players want to match themselves against the best, it is a daunting prospect. But Walker, who suffered a fractured skull during an under-13s game for his junior club Oulton, has yet to be overawed by anything thrown at him in his rugby career and won’t be intimidated on Friday.
“He is the best full-back in the world, you could argue,” he said of Slater. “But to me, he is another player. He is only human. I will play my game how I always do, to the best of my ability.”
Walker admitted Slater is someone he can and has learned from.
“I’ve looked at plenty of clips of him,” he said. “I used to watch YouTube videos of him when I was younger, but now I am here it is just another game.”
Of Slater’s influence on his career, Walker added: “He has got the step and the agility.
“He is not the biggest of players, he’s not tall – I wouldn’t consider myself tall – but he has definitely got some attributes similar to mine.”
Players from Rhinos and Storm have met up only once this week, at a launch event on Monday, and Walker kept his distance from his rival, but might approach Slater after the game. He said: “I’d love to swap my shirt with him, he’s one of the best players in the world.”
Leeds will need to show a no-fear approach in Friday’s game, but Walker is confident they can spring a surprise.
“They are not supernatural,” he said of Storm. “They are human beings. We can beat them. It takes that grit and determination to do it tough at times in games. We will have to bring it all out and not leave anything out there.”
Assuming he is selected, the world-title match will be another step in Walker’s dramatic rise.
“This time last year I played against Saints in the academy,” he recalled. “It shows how much a year can do. I just take everything as it comes and deal with it day by day. I have worked hard throughout the whole year and it just keeps getting better and better. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”
Just being part of the squad in Australia has been a valuable experience. It is his first overseas camp and he has only played abroad at Catalans, in France.
“I am excited for the game,” he said. “I am enjoying my time here.”
Walker is one of two full-backs in Rhinos’ 19-man squad. He has got the nod over No 1 Ashton Golding in Rhinos’ two Betfred Super League fixtures and played in the Grand Final last year. But Walker has time on his side and knows he, almost inevitably, will spend spells out of the team. He said: “It’s all down to Mac [coach Brian McDermott] and what he wants. Ashton played at the start of last year and all through the mid-season and he is still a massive part of this team.”
Rhinos’ new hero Jack Walker, who has made a highly impressive start to season, is 7/2 at Betfred to make it a dream game and score in the World Club Challenge.