Local lad Gareth Widdop returns aiming to cause storm in Leeds
Halifax-born No 6 left for Australia as a teen – now he's back with Melbourne hoping to upset Rhinos
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Thursday 21 February 2013
The boy has undeniably done good in Australia, but home is still where the heart is for the Melbourne Storm's Gareth Widdop. The NRL Champions' Pommie stand-off has been back on familiar turf this week, preparing for the World Club Challenge against Leeds tonight, especially when the Storm's itinerary took them to Halifax for a training session.
It was eight years ago that the young Widdop and his family left the town for a new life Down Under. He was already steeped in rugby league, having spent four years on Halifax's scholarship scheme, so the session at The Shay felt very much like returning to his roots.
"It's great to be back where it all started for me," he says. "I owe Halifax a lot and it's great to be surrounded by family and friends. I grew up dreaming of playing for my hometown team."
The alternative, more ambitious dream was to follow in the footsteps of his childhood idol, Robbie Paul. Widdop's guilty secret is that he was actually a Bradford Bulls fan, with Paul a special hero. Among the away games he recalls were several at Headingley, the scene of tonight's showdown.
"I always enjoyed the atmosphere there," he says. "Leeds fans are some of the best in the game, but it's always nice to put one over on them."
Gareth was rather drifting in the game when the Widdops emigrated and had even had a few games of rugby union with his mates at Old Brodleians. Once in Melbourne, however, he signed up to play league for one of the city's junior clubs, the Altona Roosters, coached by his dad, Gary, and was almost immediately identified as a hot prospect by the Storm's talent spotters. The depth of ability at the Melbourne club was such that breaking into the first team was a formidable task, especially when your early role was as back-up to Billy Slater, not only the best full-back in the game, but quite possibly the best ever.
Widdop was brought back to Britain by the Storm for the World Club Challenge in 2010, but missed out on selection. There was a consolation prize, however, in being named as a surprise inclusion in Steve McNamara's England side, for which he has now played eight internationals. He is also well capable of playing wing or centre, but for the last two seasons, after Brett Finch's move from Melbourne to Wigan, he has been what he always aspired to be – a specialist stand-off.
"That's what I see myself as, but there are so many great players here that I'm learning all the time."
It is a mark of Widdop's relative seniority at the age of 23 that the returning Finch will have to wait for any opportunity to supplant Widdop.
Three of his team-mates – Slater, hooker Cameron Smith and the half-back Cooper Cronk – are the best in the world in their positions. Tonight, however, he will be in direct opposition to the player controversially elected the best of the lot – the Leeds captain, Kevin Sinfield.
As someone who has played alongside him for England, Widdop is well placed to judge whether Antipodean howls of protest over the recipient of the Golden Boot have any justification. But he is as diplomatic as any player who has been through the NRL's media training. "Everyone knows what Kevin has done for rugby league and he deserves it," he says.
Strong as his loyalties are to the land of his birth, Widdop believes there will be many more players following in his footsteps and those of the likes of James Graham and Sam Burgess, who are both playing for Sydney clubs. The reasons are many and various, but Widdop cites the exchange rate of the weak pound to the strong Aussie dollar and the loosening of the NRL's salary cap. Unlike for most of the last 30 seasons, a player can earn more in Australia.
One trend is that NRL clubs are starting to show an interest in players at the formative stage of their career. Zak Dewhirst, a 17-year-old from the same King Cross amateur club where Widdop played, has just been accepted on a four-month trial with the Storm. One piece of advice the incumbent Melbourne No 6 would give him is "not to forget where home is". Widdop himself had a reminder of that priority when, for the first time since he moved to the other side of the world, he watched Halifax play last weekend.
There were fewer than 2,000 at The Shay for the Championship match against Keighley – a far cry from full houses in some of the biggest stadiums in Australia – but it opened a vein of nostalgia he didn't know was there.
"I'd like to think I'd run around here some time later in my career," he says. If that day ever dawns, Halifax will be ready to welcome back its local boy made good.
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