Widdop auditions for Storm's Fab Four

Not since Ringo Starr stepped in on drums for The Beatles has an Englishman felt this type of pressure: to not be the weak link in the armour of the ‘Fab Four’.

New-generation Melbourne pivot Gareth Widdop, a talented junior fullback from the Storm’s own system now busy remoulding himself as a frontline NRL five-eighth, has been handed such a task.

The 22-year-old emigrant from Halifax in northern England admits it’s a daunting proposition, but he aspires to hold up his end of the equation among the NRL’s best key-position spine. They are, of course, the Storm’s superstar trio of Test halfback Cooper Cronk, the game’s premier fullback Billy Slater, and Australian captain-in-waiting and No.9 Cameron Smith.

After three rounds of the 2011 season, and with an  acid test against the NRL’s sole unbeaten team – the Bulldogs – now on the horizon, it’s so far, so good.

Widdop has proven a revelation ahead of Canterbury’s visit to AAMI Park this Monday night, taking the first nervy steps among the headline acts even he describes as the ‘Fab Three’.

Earmarked in mid-2010 by coach Craig Bellamy to this season inherit the rebuilding Storm’s No.6 jumper from veteran Brett Finch, Widdop knows he’s been handed a giant job – but he’s desperate to succeed.

“We’ve got the ‘Fab Three’ and they’re very good players, so to be playing alongside them is a real excitement for myself, but I feel a bit daunted too,” Widdop tells Big League. “I’ve only just started but it would be really good to stay and play around with those guys for the next few years. 

"I’d like to maybe make a career at six. I’ve just got to play every week and go from there. Five-eighth is a new role for me and I haven’t played too much footy with Billy, Smithy and Coops.

“I’ve been given the opportunity; I just need to carry on working on what I’m doing good and what I need to improve. Once we get the combinations going, I’m sure it will go well for us.”

It’s been a case of two steps forward, one step back for the Storm after last Monday night’s 34-6 road loss to the Cowboys soured impressive wins at home over Manly and the Gold Coast.

Widdop’s raw halves duo with Cronk was rusty first-up against the Sea Eagles, before suddenly exploding against the Titans as Widdop showcased skill and poise in the Storm’s seven-try, 40-12 rout.

“We’re trying to use our skill out wide with Gareth, Coop and myself,” Slater explains. “We’re trying to get to the edges and get our second-rowers punching lines and work off the back of that.”

A wet night in Townsville brought the Storm crashing back to earth – but Widdop did score the Storm’s sole try with a crafty cross-field run and some dazzling footwork.

“He’s coming along strong, Gaz (Gareth),” Storm skipper Cam Smith observes. “He’s a great player and a quick learner, so he can only get better.

“He’s played fullback most of his life and I think he’s a terrific fullback, but he’s got the Australian No.1 (Slater) in front of him, and he’s made a good fist of the No.6 position.”

Widdop’s next task comes Monday night, against another new halves pairing in the Kris Keating-Trent Hodkinson duo of the Bulldogs.

“They’re the only undefeated team in the competition at the moment, but we know we’ve got the team there and we know we can play good football,” Widdop says.
Smith believes the key challenge for Widdop is to strike a neat balance between being a useful assistant to Cronk and underplaying his hand: a role Finch mastered.

“It’s just knowing when he needs to get the ball and being confident to call it,” Smith said. “At the moment, as everyone would be playing with Cooper or if you were playing with Johnathan Thurston, you tend to let them run the ball a bit more.

“I think Gaz just needs to understand that if he wants the ball and if he believes he can do something with it, he’s got to be confident enough to call for it and run with it.”

Bellamy, who with assistant and decorated No.6 Kevin Walters is pouring resources into Widdop, puts it this way: “I’m pleased with it so far, but Gareth’s still got plenty of development to go, particularly on his combination with Cooper.”

Like retiring Test skipper Darren Lockyer, Widdop spent his junior years playing in the halves, only moving to fullback after moving to Victoria from northern England as a 16-year-old. 

“I only played fullback for the last 4-5 years, in England I was always a half so I found it a little bit easier,” Widdop said. 

“The hardest thing has been just taking a bit more ownership and control. It’s going to take time but I’m enjoying it. I’m confident I’ll get stronger.”

He may be relatively new to NRL fans, playing just three NRL games in 2010, but the budding Yorkshire product is well-known to league fans back home in England.

His story attracted a media scrum when selected in a 23-man squad for the 2010 World Club Challenge in Leeds, which pre-dated his NRL debut. Last June, Widdop was plucked from obscurity to make his Test debut for England against France, scoring a try with his first touch. He earned a place in England’s Four Nations squad, playing a warm-up against New Zealand Maori and Tests against the Kiwis and Papua New Guinea.

“It just gave me a lot more confidence, being around those older players who I used to look up to as a kid,” Widdop said. “I took it all in, it was a  brilliant experience , being a young fella. Playing alongside them was a real big buzz.”

Widdop sports two diamante earrings and a quiet demeanour away from footy. He is one of Victorian Rugby League’s most successful graduates and a player likely to have fallen between the cracks without the birth of the Toyota Cup in 2008.

Asked if he listens to The Beatles, Widdop smiles: “Nah.... I’m too young.”