MVPs of 2014: Gareth Widdop
As we count down to season 2014, NRL.com identifies 30 players who will be crucial to their team's fortunes this year. From new faces to rising stars to proven performers who will need to lift this season, these are our 'MVPs' for 2014.
Back in Halifax, West Yorkshire, old-timers still fondly recall the 1934-35 exploits of Albert Valentine, whose fancy footwork and club record 34 goals in a single season helped Halifax Town achieve such on-field success that the club actually posted a yearly profit of £1,100.
If Gareth Widdop's dazzling left foot has a similar influence at St George Illawarra in 2014, the sizeable investment the club has made on the English international will be well worth it.
It's perhaps no surprise that a boy growing up amidst the hysteria of the English Premier League through the 1990s would develop silky skills with both feet but Widdop was attracted to the physical confrontation found in rugby league from a young age, playing with King Cross Park RLFC.
And when his family moved to Melbourne in 2005, 16-year-old Widdop quickly latched onto one of the few local rugby league teams and then fast-tracked his education under Craig Bellamy at the Storm and alongside the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.
But now the time has come to step out of the shadows of the 'big three' and into the fishbowl that is rugby league in Sydney and the pressures associated with resurrecting the fortunes of one of the proudest clubs in the land.
It's been less than four years since St George Illawarra last tasted premiership victory but results have been in steady decline ever since. They qualified for the finals in 2011, finished ninth in 2012 and finished above only the Wests Tigers and Parramatta last season.
Whether they can turn that around to once again be a top-eight contender in 2014 will rest largely on Widdop.
Following the mid-season addition of Josh Dugan, Widdop's signature was the most high-profile in an extensive recruitment campaign that has also netted Mike Cooper (Warrington), Dylan Farrell (Rabbitohs), Joel Thompson (Raiders) and Michael Witt (London Broncos). Coach Steve Price is starting to assemble the squad he believes can take the club forward and Widdop shapes as the key piece of the puzzle.
The exciting aspect of Widdop's play for Price and Dragons fans is the directness with which he attacks the line and the footwork he displays in minimal space to create opportunities for either himself or his teammates.
When the Storm were engaged in a torrid arm-wrestle with the Rabbitohs in a clash of two undefeated teams in Round 6 last season, it was Widdop who broke the game wide open with a sparkling piece of play out of nothing.
With his side leading 12-6 early in the second half, Widdop took a pass from Billy Slater down a short blindside with defenders all around him. Then in scenes reminiscent of that great '80s movie "Top Gun", Rabbitohs half Adam Reynolds was left asking, "Where'd who go?" when Widdop left him grasping at thin air with a left-foot step off a dime, brushing past Beau Champion and squeezing between Ben Te'o and Greg Inglis to extend the lead to 10.
"He's got brilliant footwork Gareth Widdop and we've seen it plenty of times in his career in the NRL," said Fox Sports commentator Greg Alexander. "The footwork of Widdop to slide between those two Bunnies, just brilliant."
The 24-year-old is a capable right-footed goalkicker with a success rate of 75.76 per cent from 33 attempts over the past four years at the Storm but the role he needs to play best now is that of provider. The Dragons were 15th in try assists in 2013 and with 39 per cent of those coming from the now departed Jamie Soward (eight) and Nathan Fien (13), Widdop will become the focal point of the St George Illawarra attack.
He recorded eight try assists in 16 games before a dislocated hip against the Titans in Round 15 sidelined him up until the qualifying final against the Rabbitohs. It was a remarkable return from injury when at the time many considered his season well and truly finished and the confidence he will have gained from coming back from such a serious injury will make his transition at the Dragons so much smoother.
But it will take time to adjust to life as the conductor, and not merely the role player.
The combination between he and Ryan Hoffman was a constant threat on the Melbourne left edge and he may find Hoffman's kindred spirit in fellow Dragons recruit Joel Thompson. With Widdop's footwork and ability to hold up a defence with a perfectly timed pass, Thompson's penchant for running hard and fast may reap rich rewards.
The Dragons may not win the comp in 2014 but fans need to see enough from Widdop to know that with him wearing the No.6 jumper with the red V on the front, the downward spiral will soon be a thing of the past.