Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
One grew up dreaming of playing in England’s Super League, the other returned home this year having spent 12 successful months over there, yet it was in Melbourne Storm colours that Gareth Widdop and Ryan Hoffman achieved their greatest feat on Sunday night.
Melbourne’s left-edge duo was in fine form in Sunday’s grand final win over Canterbury, combining for Hoffman to score the opening try after just six minutes and pulling off a series of crucial plays – none more telling than when Widdop chased down a runaway Josh Reynolds midway through the first half.
But it could have been so very different had fate not brought them together in 2012.
“Growing up in England, I always wanted to play in the Super League. That was my main goal,” Widdop told NRL.com after winning his first top grade premiership. “In 2006 we immigrated to Australia in search of a better lifestyle but I still had the intention of playing football. I still wanted to play rugby league at a high level so doing that with the Storm has been massive. It has just worked out really well.”
Likewise, when Hoffman headed to English giants Wigan in 2011 – a victim of the club’s need to cut down their spending in the wake of their salary cap infractions – he had no idea if or when he would return.
“I only signed a one-year deal (with Wigan) because I wanted to give myself the option and halfway through last year Frank (Ponissi, general manager) gave me a call and asked if I was interested in coming back,” Hoffman explained.
“I came back to Australia because I wanted to win grand finals again and I knew the Storm would give me the best opportunity. I wasn’t done with the NRL. I felt I still had a lot to prove and a bit to do and I’m really happy to have done this in my first year back. I’m stoked.”
Hoffman insists he has no regrets about his year away from Melbourne, but like many who have been a part of the Storm system under Craig Bellamy over the years (and even the coach himself) it seems that he bleeds purple.
“I had the time of my life (in England),” he said. “I always say to myself that you never make bad decisions. All decisions are worth it and I made sure I worked really hard there and did everything I could to enjoy it.
“But it’s a fantastic feeling to be back and to be a part of this. I’m really proud. I worked really hard in the pre-season to make sure I was back up to NRL standard. The big thing for me was to make sure that I contributed and did my job. Everyone here has done that.
“It’s great to see all of the boys get the rewards that they deserve and a few in particular – Sika Manu broke his leg back in 2009 and it’s great to see him there to experience it this time around.”
While Hoffman is no stranger to success at the Storm, having played in both the 2007 and 2009 grand final wins, Widdop is a relative newcomer to the side having slotted into the No.6 jersey last season following the departure of Greg Inglis.
Yet there was no evidence of inexperience when he sent Hoffman across the try line on Sunday night or pulled off one of the plays of the game in chasing down Reynolds.
“It was just one of those things – I pinned the ears back and managed to catch him,” Widdop said of his great chase. “I think every play in a grand final is crucial so you’ve got to make sure you never give up because that’s what happens.”
Despite playing alongside Melbourne’s ‘big three’ of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, Widdop said he never dreamed he would win a premiership in just his second full season in the top grade.
“Unbelievable. My second year of first grade… to win a premiership is massive, just massive,” he said.
“It’s all happened so fast, it’s a bit surreal.
“Obviously we lost a fair few players [in 2010] and I got my chance but even though I was confident in what I could do, I’m still learning.
“I’ve got good players around me which helps and the more we’ve played together, the better we’ve become… but to do this – it’s amazing.”
Asked about the significance of winning an official premiership after having his 2007 and 2009 titles stripped, Hoffman said: “That’s a popular theme but I don’t want that to ruin it for me. This is the 2012 Melbourne Storm and that’s how I’ll think of them.
“At the end of the day, those grand final wins are still wins and they are all very special because they’re all with a different group.
“This one is no different. We worked really hard for this and it’s a fantastic feeling.”