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How Benji has improved Widdop's game

Gareth Widdop left Melbourne last October wanting more responsibility and more ball.

Resigned to playing the part of Ringo in the Storm's edition of the Fab Four while ever he wore the purple strip, the 25-year-old bid farewell to the charmed life he'd lived alongside messrs Smith, Cronk and Slater for the chief playmaking role at a club scrutinised like few others in the game.

Eight months on the English international could've been forgiven for wondering what he'd got himself into.

Steve Price, the man who had delivered him into the red and white, was out the door. The Dragons' 2014 campaign was circling the drain, gift wrapping points and hand delivering them at a rate of 36 a game to the Roosters, Bulldogs and Parramatta in three ugly, consecutive weeks.

Widdop had arrived at the Dragons wanting to prove his leadership credentials. And he found himself staring down the mother-of-all acid tests.

"The sacking of Pricey was something I've never experienced before, it was strange," Widdop says of the upheaval that installed assistant Paul McGregor as caretaker coach after a bright 3-0 start to the season for the club was followed up with just one more win in the next two months. 

"Personally it didn't affect me too much, but we've got a young group here – and I still class myself as young – but coming from such a strong culture and strong leadership group down in Melbourne, I did have to take on more of a leadership role with the young blokes sitting there going 'what the hell's going on?'

"Just making sure we all got to training in the right frame of mind and kept doing the little things we needed to, which took a bit to improve but we're now doing. That helped me with my own focus, and my leadership skills, learning how to manage the other guys and trying to keep them focused."

"Personally  things like that, it's taught me how it's in our hands as players, and to focus on playing football week-in week-out, because that's all you can really do in that situation."

So no, Widdop never did wonder what he'd gotten himself into, even when the Dragons were at their lowest ebb. And when the club went out and signed up Benji Marshall – the definition of a dominant half in his previous life at the Tigers – there was no fear either of having to hand over the playmaking reins he'd coveted and travelled almost 1000 kilometres to take up. 

"Benji knew coming back into a new club, and a new system, he was going to have to come in and play to our style," says Widdop.

"To his credit he came straight in and has done that. 

"Benji's the same sort of player as Cooper [Cronk] – he's used to being the dominant playmaker – but he's been really good. I'm in the game a lot more and I get my hands on the ball a lot more at the Dragons than I ever did at Melbourne. 

"There's not one of us taking more control than the other, it's just about sharing the duties evenly."

The addition of Marshall to the Red V cause has in fact coincided with an increase in the amount of touches Widdop registers in each outing, up from 43.5 in the nine games prior to Marshall's signing to just under 49 in the 10 outings since. Marshall clocks in at an average of just over 49 touches a game.

Since the former Kiwi skipper joined the Dragons Widdop is also running for more metres (up from 50 metres per game to 73), and has recorded a try-assist in each of his last five games. 

Widdop freely admits he felt under the pump as the side's attacking focal point prior throughout the first half of the season, so perhaps the most telling statistic of Marshall's influence is the pivot's error rate: down from over two a game in the pre-Benji days to less than one in each match they have been paired together. 

"I think coming into a new club, it was a bit expected but I was under quite a bit of pressure earlier in the year, with teams always coming at me and I was trying to direct the side all the time," Widdop says.

"With Benji being there, it opens us up and I don't have to try and come up with everything, and do everything.

"Everyone knows what a talent he is and has been over the years, and having him there frees up my side and if they're over compensating on my side in defence it works vice versa and is going well. 

"It makes the team less predictable, which is what you want in attack, and if an opportunity's there to be taken Benji's there nine times out of ten to take it, which is great."

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