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 entertain South Sydney in a semi-final that promises to be a belter, pitting 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 English league heartland of Halifax, can help the Storm to a title he will be joining a select band of Englishmen who have been good enough to play in a premiership side in this country.
The versatile Widdop – who normally starts at five-eighth but deputised at fullback 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 [Michael Crocker] and Kingy [Matt King], 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,” the England international says.
Widdop has seen the difficult times at the club and the fallout after the salary cap penalty, with players leaving and returning. So winning the title without 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,” he said. ”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.”
Storm finished the season in fine fettle, with five successive wins. Even if they have been by narrow margins in unexpected circumstances, those wins say a lot about the team and their self-belief.
”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. 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, who came to Melbourne as a promising 16-year-old when his parents Gary, a builder, and Joanne, a teacher, emigrated to Australia, has conquered culture shock. ”We had no idea rugby league was big down here until we got here and realised and thought, ‘Jesus’.” He has fought his way through the fiercely competitive talent pool to get to where he is now. A premiership would top it all off nicely.
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