Time in AFL territory helped Widdop

It has taken Gareth Widdop seven years to achieve his teenage ambition of playing for a team based in rugby league heartland, but if the new St George Illawarra playmaker hadn't detoured via Melbourne he does not know whether the chance would have ever arisen.

After his parents, Gary and Joanne, decided to relocate the family to Australia in 2006, the then 16-year-old was excited by the opportunity of living in a place where league dominated the media and general conversation so he was taken aback to discover AFL rules over all else in Melbourne after immigration officials advised the Widdops they needed to move to Victoria.

However, the former Yorkshire junior representative star now concedes the shift may have been the best thing for his career as he wasn't competing with a large pool of talent in Melbourne when the NRL introduced the under 20s National Youth Competition.

"I always had intentions of playing league; I had played it since I was four or five and I knew, obviously, that Australia was massive for rugby league, so it was a bit of a shock to get to Melbourne and find out that there was pretty much no rugby league at all," Widdop said.

"There was like five rugby league teams, which wasn't a strong competition at all, so at first it was quite hard because all I wanted to do was play rugby league.

"We were supposed to move to Noosa but Immigration said because my mum was a teacher at the time that Melbourne needed teachers, so not long before we were supposed to move out here we got a phone call saying you have to move to Melbourne for two years. We pretty much had no choice but luckily when I got here the under 20s competition was starting up and being down in Melbourne there weren't too many kids coming through."

Named in the NYC team of the year in 2009, Widdop has always appeared destined to be a star, but it has taken his move to St George Illawarra this season to escape the shadow of the Storm's big three, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.

The 25-year-old Widdop has been outstanding in the Dragons wins over Wests Tigers and the Warriors, and the way he has transformed a team widely tipped as wooden spoon favourites has many now suggesting he could be one of the best English halves to have played for an Australian club.

"I could have stayed in Melbourne, but the Dragons are going through a stage where they have got a very young roster; it is a great club, it has got a lot of history, it is a proud club and I came up here for the opportunity to be a part of a team that is building over the next few years," Widdop said.

However, as former Storm teammate Adam Blair has learnt, being a big name recruit from the Storm comes with its drawbacks. And Widdop got his first taste of why St George Illawarra fans are considered the toughest group of supporters to satisfy when calls for the sacking of coach Steve Price intensified after the 42-18 Charity Shield loss to South Sydney.

"In Melboure, it is all AFL and you don't hear too much about rugby league so from moving down there to up here it is a totally different world for myself," Widdop said. "The coach was copping a fair bit and the players were, but it was just a trial, so it was tough for everyone.

"To see a reaction like that after a trial was very different because I am not used to it, but supporters are passionate and everyone is passionate about winning, and when you see a team lose like that it is disappointing. We understand that we didn't perform and we went away, worked hard and we have turned it around, which is great."

Asked if he had been concerned by the criticism of Blair since he joined Wests Tigers, Widdop said: "It is a bit different being a forward or a back-rower because you are playing off other people wheareas I was moving on as a half so you are the one who is supposed to create".

While he has played 11 Tests for England, including last year's epic World Cup semi-final loss to New Zealand at Wembley Stadium, and been in grand finals and World Club Challenge deciders, Widdop has never experienced a true local derby like Saturday night's clash between the Dragons and Cronulla at Remondis Stadium.

"Down in Melbourne we always have tough battles with Manly, but it is not a local derby like the Sharks and Dragons, so I am really looking forward to it," he said. "They are always tough and physical games and it is going to be a challenge playing at Shark Park."

The story Time in AFL territory helped Widdop first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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