Huge strides have been taken by Ben Barba to return to the NRL - but Billy Slater showed what a big step the next one is.
Promotion to State of Origin appeared more challenging than ever for the talented Barba after Slater again provided the benchmark in Melbourne's tense 32-26 win over the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
Barba was the first to admit he was finding his feet again in the NRL after the Bulldogs fullback's much-anticipated comeback in Friday's 17-12 loss to South Sydney.
Playing Origin is hardly Barba's top priority as he battles alcohol and gambling issues.
However, Slater still provided a reminder of what is required to deny him his beloved Queensland No1 jersey with a three-try display against a spirited Broncos.
"It was probably great to watch," a deadpan Broncos coach Anthony Griffin said.
"They scored some freakish tries and that's the disappointing thing - they don't get much better than that."
Brisbane roared back from 14-0 down after 15 minutes and 20-6 at halftime to lead 22-20 with half an hour of the match remaining.
Enter Slater. In front of a 40,000-plus crowd, Slater broke Brisbane hearts when he sealed his hat-trick by plucking a 62nd minute Cooper Cronk bomb and crashing over. Slater has now scored 10 tries in as many games against Brisbane at Suncorp.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy said it was the individual brilliance of the likes of Slater that got his out-of-sorts Melbourne out of jail.
"We needed a couple things out of the ordinary to get out of this," he said. "Those are not tries all teams can score."
But Slater claimed it was just business as usual: "It might look like solo brilliance was the difference but it wasn't the case. It's never just one bloke who comes up with the great play. You need to be playing as a team."
Slater opened his account controversially when he latched on to an inside pass - and a gaping hole - and raced away to score in the ninth minute despite Broncos captain Sam Thaiday's complaints that he had been held up in the preceding scrum.
Six minutes later, Slater pounced on a Cameron Smith grubber and the Broncos looked shot. But it was his third try in the second half that landed the body blow, snapping Brisbane's unanswered 16-point run.