'It was the best thing for me': Why Widdop left the Storm
As he prepares for his 100th game in the famous Red V of St George Illawarra against the Warriors on Friday night, Gareth Widdop has admitted he wouldn't be the same player if he hadn't decided to leave Melbourne.
Widdop, who joined the Dragons in 2015 and has been captain for the past three seasons, was third in last year's Dally M medal, arguably the player of the World Cup and has been one of the stars of the Telstra Premiership's opening six rounds.
Yet few players thrive outside of the Storm environment and it was a big decision for Widdop to move away from a team in which he was the fourth member of an all-star spine with Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
"At that stage of my career it was a big move," Widdop said. "Melbourne are obviously a great team. To leave that behind and to move was difficult but at the same time I knew, for my football career, it was the best thing for me.
"I suppose I moved here to take the next step in a leadership role and become more of a dominant ball player and if I'd stayed in Melbourne I probably would've sat back a bit."
While the Storm won last year's premiership and were runners-up in 2016, the Dragons are now this season's favourites after being the only remaining unbeaten team following the Warriors loss to Brisbane last weekend.
They are also six points clear of fifth place and on track for a finals berth that wouldn't have alluded them last season if Manly's salary cap breaches had been unearthed sooner.
Widdop said it was the form the Dragons displayed last season and the recruitment of halfback Ben Hunt from Brisbane that convinced him to extend his contract with the club until the end of the 2021 season.
"We showed last year what we could do at times and I knew I wanted to be a part of this team and lead it moving forward," he said.
"Being made captain of such a proud club with a big history has been an honour and a privilege and it is great I get to run out with a great group of blokes each week and we have got a team now which is playing with a lot of confidence."
Since Widdop's arrival in 2015, there are only four other survivors – Jason Nightingale, Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and Leeson Ah Mau - of the team which was coached by Steve Price before Paul McGregor took over midway through the season.
"There's been a hell of a lot of change in coaches and players since I move here, it is practically a new team," he said.
"The recruitment side of things have done a good job to get to where the side is now, with the players they've brought in.
"I've had six or seven partners in the past so, in adding Ben there in the halves, it was good knowing I'd have stability for the next four or five years.
"We have got a lot of depth in the squad, we have got a lot of youth coming through and we have got a lot of experience so we have got a good balance at the moment."