Former Great Britain international and leading commentator Mike Stephenson has declared departing St George Illawarra captain Gareth Widdop as one of the greatest English backs to have played in Australia and called for a trophy to be named in his honour.
Widdop, who will make his final NRL appearance against Gold Coast on Saturday, has played more premiership matches (194) and scored more points (995) than any other Englishman, won a grand final with Melbourne in 2012, and captained the Dragons for the past three seasons.
Stephenson said Widdop was the best English playmaker of the NRL era and compared him alongside legendary halfbacks Tommy Bishop and Dave Bolton as one of the greatest in premiership history.
"There have been some great English players, like Tommy Bishop (Cronulla 1969-73), Dave Bolton (Balmain 1965-70) and Dick Huddart (St George 1964-68) but I would certainly put Gareth Widdop up there with all of those very, very good players who came out and played in Australia," Stephenson said.
"He is one of the best imports of all time to have come from this country. There are not many who have taken on the world down in Australia, and not only taken them on but shown what they can do the way this lad has."
Bishop was a tough and wily halfback, who led the Sharks to their first grand final in 1973, Bolton kicked two field goals in the No.7 jersey as the Tigers upset South Sydney in the 1969 decider, and Huddart helped continued the Dragons premiership dominance in 1966 and 1967.
Stephenson, who was a member of Great Britain’s 1972 World Cup winning team and played hooker for Penrith from 1974 to 1978 before embarking on a 26-year broadcasting career with Sky TV in the UK, believes Widdop’s achievements should be officially recognised with a trophy named after him.
"I know they play for a Tommy Bishop Shield down in the Cronulla area and I think that it would be a nice tribute to this lad if they could do something similar, like giving the Widdop Trophy for the best junior coming through, because he has certainly left his mark on Australian rugby league," Stephenson said.
"I have met his father many, many times and he has always had the confidence that he would make it but he has not only made it, he has made it and gone to the very top."
Unlike most English players in the NRL, Widdop moved to Australia as a teenager and rose to prominence through the Melbourne Storm's junior ranks.
He was named in the 2009 NYC under 20s team of the year, along with Daly Cherry-Evans, Kieran Foran, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jesse Bromwich and Trent Merrin, before making NRL debut for the Storm the following season.
Sam Burgess also made his NRL debut in 2010, while James Graham joined Canterbury in 2012. But it has only been in recent seasons that English players have moved to Australia in significant numbers, with 12 playing in this year's Telstra Premiership.
"Sam came across having a background in Super League and having a name whereas for myself I wasn't signed to play football but I had an opportunity to go to Melbourne and came through their system," Widdop said.
"As a young kid with no name and no background in rugby league to come across and get named in that team with all the talent that Australia has was something I am proud of and hopefully some other kids might have thought if he can do it so can I.
"It was good to be one of a few three or four English blokes playing in the NRL at the time and help set a trend for more English players to come out to play and be successful as well."
Widdop joined the Dragons in 2014 and is widely acknowledged as the club's best and most consistent player until a shoulder injury limited the 30-year-old Warrington-bound play maker to just nine appearances this season.
"From the day I got here until now I think there is only two [Tyson Frizell and Jack de Belin] others left so it has been a big rebuilding phase and I feel like we have improved a hell of a lot," Widdop said.
"I could have stayed in Melbourne and maybe played in more finals but I certainly have had no regrets. I feel like the move has helped me to develop as a player and a person. Becoming skipper of the club was a huge honour for myself and I would like to think I have played a small part in improving the team and the squad.
"Obviously this year has been disappointing and that is something that is going to hurt for a long time but I'd like to think that I have given everything that is possible, when I step over the white line on a weekend, and I am certainly proud of what I have been able to do at this club.”