GARETH Widdop has been in Australia for seven years, but the flat vowels and deliberate speech rhythms of a native Yorkshireman leave absolutely no doubt as to his antecedents.
Men from the white rose county, England’s largest, have a reputation for being taciturn and keeping their own counsel.
Widdop is open and direct, but like most sportsmen he would prefer to do his talking on the field, and he will get few better chances to show his eloquence than tonight, when his Melbourne Storm side faces South Sydney in a qualifying final clash that promises to be a belter. It pits several high-profile former teammates against each other for the chance to host a preliminary final and enjoy a week’s rest.
If the 23-year-old, who was born and raised in the north of England rugby league heartland of Halifax, in West Yorkshire, can help Storm to a title this season he will be joining one of a select band of Englishmen who have been good enough to play in a premiership-winning rugby league side in Australia.
The versatile Widdop – who normally starts at five-eighth but deputised at full-back for the injured Billy Slater on several occasions earlier this season – is not the sort to get too far ahead of himself.
”The Rabbitohs, with ‘Crock’ and ‘Kingy’, Greg Inglis, it’s going to be a massive game, it’s going to be rough and they also have big Sammy Burgess getting them going. Everyone strives to get to the grand final and win it and, of course, we are no different. But we will do it the same as all year, concentrate on the approach we always have and try to treat it as another game,” Widdop said.
Widdop has seen the difficult times at the club and the massive fallout following the exposure of breaches in the salary cap, with players leaving and coming back. Therefore winning the title with no controversy would be even sweeter.
”We lost a lot of good players but, at the same time, we have recruited some other good ones, players who are maybe knocking on a little bit and were looking for another opportunity. They have come down here and bought into the system we have and are really enjoying it. They are experienced and are helping the younger guys.”
The Storm has finished the season in fine fettle, with five successive wins. Even if they have been by narrow margins in unexpected circumstances, they say a lot about the team.
”The Cronulla match [when two late tries sealed an improbable victory at AAMI Park] wasn’t the best game we have played but at the same time we never give in,” Widdop said.
”The finals are going to be close games and you have to keep fighting right on to that last minute when the siren sounds. We have a lot of belief. While there is time on the clock everything is possible and we showed that against the Sharks.”
Widdop came to Melbourne as a promising 16-year-old when his parents Gary, a builder, and Joanne, a teacher, emigrated to Australia, and has conquered culture shock – ”we had no idea rugby league wasn’t big down here until we got here and realised and thought, ‘Jesus’ ” – and fought his way through the fiercely competitive Australian NRL talent pool to get to where he is now.
A premiership would top it all off nicely.
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