No doubt English rugby league is ruing the day Halifax’s Widdop family decided to travel to Australia. A sun-seeking holiday almost a decade ago cost England one of their brightest young footballing talents, boom Melbourne Storm playmaker Gareth Widdop.
And in an ironic twist, it was Aussie Brett Finch’s switch to Wigan in the English Super League that paved the way for Widdop to try his hand at the new role of five-eighth, a position he’s made his own in 2011.
“When I was about 12 we came to Australia, got a four-wheel drive and just decided to drive up the east coast,” Widdop, 22, tells NRL.com ahead of his team’s top-of-the-table clash with Manly on Friday night.
“We saw the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of it – I think that’s what sold us on the decision to move over here to live. It was quite hard to go back to England after that trip!
“We emigrated at the end of 2006 for a better lifestyle and better opportunities for me and my sister. Had we not have decided to emigrate, things mightn’t have turned out like they did – it’s been a good journey.
“I always had the intentions of playing rugby league, and we ended up coming to Melbourne and I went through the lower grades in the local competition down here. In 2008 the Toyota Cup started and I was given a contract there for two years and it’s just gone from there.”
Widdop, a key cog in the Storm’s charge to the minor premiership and the finals, is in just his second season in the NRL. Now he’s been temporarily handed the responsibility of leading his team around at halfback, a stand-in role for the injured Cooper Cronk. It’s been a successful start for the livewire playmaker, last week guiding his team to an 8-6 win over the Dragons with two line-breaks and a try assist.
This week he faces another significant challenge, facing the silky skills of the Sea Eagles and arguably the game’s in-form halfback, rookie Daly Cherry-Evans. Nothing has overawed Widdop so far in his career, including a call-up to the national side in June last year after just two matches for the Storm in first grade.
“It was a massive achievement for me, especially after only playing a couple of NRL games,” Widdop, who as a kid supported Bradford and Brisbane and looked up to Darren Lockyer, admits.
“To get the phone call to go into camp with [England] was great – it happened really quickly. You always want to play for your country but to do it so early in my career – after having played only a couple of games – was a big surprise. It took a little while to sink in, to be honest!
“It was a great experience getting to play alongside Adrian Morley and Jamie Peacock, who I used to look up to when I was a kid – it was just a great feeling,” Widdop says. “It was a quite a good win for the guys and for myself getting a try. We took a lot out of that game. Hopefully I’ll become a better player for the experience.”
The Storm’s most underrated international played in last season’s end-of-season Four Nations tournament, scoring a try and kicking two goals in the process as a disappointing England won just one of three matches and missed the final. But don’t try to distract Widdop with talk of international duties – he’s totally focused on Melbourne, at least for the time being.
“Hopefully at the back-end of the season when the squad is announced my name is there but if it’s not I’ll just keep playing my best for the Melbourne Storm and hopefully down the line I’ll get selected again,” he says.
“There’s definitely a great feeling in camp [in Melbourne] at the moment – it’s been a great year so far. Considering what happened last year, we got a new range of players in and everyone’s just doing their job, playing their role and it’s been successful so far. Hopefully it will continue.
“We’re in a good position at the moment but we’ve still got two games in the regular season to go and we have to concentrate on them before we look at the finals. We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves yet – we’ll get the job done for the next fortnight before thinking about September.”
Widdop started his career as a fullback but this year has been the man to assume the Storm’s No.6 jersey, apart from his current short stint in the No.7. He’s done his job superbly, providing great service and support for his superstar team-mates and stepping up individually when a match-turning play has been required.
“I’d class myself as a fullback – I was when I was younger and when I was in the under-20s – but since I’ve been given this role at five-eighth I’m really enjoying it and found a home there,” Widdop says. “At the moment I’d say I’m really enjoying being a five-eighth and I feel like it’s my position now. It’s only my first year in the position, so hopefully I’ll keep going the way I’m going and keep learning.
“The coaches don’t put too much pressure on me – obviously with Cooper alongside me, he’s the dominant half, he calls the shots and I just play off the back of him. I’m just trying to work on my game and develop it all-round – as a former fullback, there are a few changes playing in the frontline. Obviously I want to work on my defence, but overall I want to work on my all-round ball-playing skills, too.
“There are a lot of world-class players in the team – it’s great to be playing alongside Cam (Smith), Billy (Slater) and Cooper. It gives me a lot of confidence being alongside these types of players.”
Widdop, whose father Gary played for Halifax, says the Storm’s winning environment as well as the presence of some of the best minds in the game, has accelerated his on-field development.
“The whole culture of the Melbourne Storm has helped me as a player... everyone’s just so willing to help each other out,” he says. “I think [the culture at Melbourne’s] been shaped from day one when Robbie Kearns and the like came down and all started the club. Everyone comes from interstate basically and that’s so different from any other club in the competition – most other clubs have family around them. As a result the club and the players have become very close, like a family, and it’s just rubbed off onto all the new players who come down.”
That Storm culture – where homesick players and coaches form an incredibly close bond – is one of the reasons Widdop’s gelled so well in Melbourne.
“It is obviously hard now being away from my friends and my family in England – I miss them a lot – but I’m settling down here now,” Widdop, who recently signed a new two-year deal with the Storm, says.
“I’ve got my little fella now, Brayden, and my fiancée Carley, so I’ve got my own family now here, too, which keeps me happy. [All the family] are really enjoying it – they love it.”
Which is just as well given Widdop could be in Melbourne’s plans for many seasons to come.