Widdop: Simple Bennett mantra can unleash Dragons halves again
The same simple Wayne Bennett edict that had Paul McGregor toying with a playmaking shake-up for much of summer looms as the key to dragging the Red V halves back into form.
Midway through England's World Cup campaign 10 months ago Bennett bluntly told Gareth Widdop "you're playing fullback", with the Dragons captain finishing as arguably the player of the tournament by "thinking less, running more".
Widdop returns to the St George Illawarra scrumbase to partner Ben Hunt against his old club and coach this week in a semi-final shootout at Suncorp Stadium, with a 50,000-strong crowd expected for Hunt's first return to his old stomping ground.
The Queensland half has been through the wringer and then some throughout the Dragons' late-season slump, particularly when Widdop was sidelined with a dislocated shoulder for the past month.
There's no suggestion the Englishman will make a shock switch to fullback against the Broncos, but Widdop did spend plenty of the pre-season training there as McGregor weighed up replicating the move before plumping for the livewire Matt Dufty.
Casting back to his time in England camp under Bennett, Widdop sees a similar back-to-basics approach as the circuit breaker for Hunt and his teammates.
"I hadn't played fullback for six or seven years, not since my Melbourne days when Wayne made that call – there wasn't a discussion," Widdop grinned.
"It was a good move, I was just playing footy and not overthinking things too much.
"This year I think my game has freed up a lot… We all know (Hunt) is a great runner of the football, he's strong, he's quick.
"Myself being out the last couple of weeks, he's had to take on a little bit more of a halfback's role... hopefully when I get back this week I can free him up a little bit and start taking on the line more because he's a dangerous player.
"When you're not thinking, you're going out there and enjoying the game, that's why we play the game. You play the game for enjoyment.
"There's nothing better than finals time, playing packed out stadiums. You go out there, embrace it and go out there and perform well."
Hunt has been under the microscope like no other player in 2018, a combination of his million-dollar price tag and high profile move between two marquee clubs, his demotion from Queensland's No.7 jumper and subsequent Dragons decline.
Broncos captain and mate Darius Boyd spoke strongly in defence of his ex-teammate for the second time in as many days on Monday, describing the barrage of criticism directed at Hunt as "very unfair and unwarranted".
"Unfortunately that is life sometimes and we have to put up with negative people and naysayers. I think it has gone too far," Boyd said.
Widdop echoed that sentiment, but was confident Hunt had not been adversely effected by the spotlight.
"As a teammate and a friend you're always asking 'are you ok?' because he's copped a lot of criticism," Widdop said.
"But I keep saying it's not an individual sport. We play a team sport. It can't just go on one bloke's shoulders. Early on this year when we were going well he was the hero.
"Now we're struggling and he's copping all the blame. It's disappointing to see but thankfully Ben's a pretty laid back sort of dude and I think moving forward he's got a massive game going up to Brisbane, his old club and he'll be excited for it."
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