What to make about Widdop

BY DAN

The Canberra Raiders have reportedly been in contact with Gareth Widdop about coming to Canberra to play in the number 7 jersey.

It’s been a wild ride in recent weeks for Canberra fans. With George Williams’ cap-money burning a hole in their pocket, and Josh Hodgson’s likely departure set to free up even more, it seems the Raiders are keen to get involved in the free agent market. Matt Dufty and Gareth Widdop have so far been the prime candidates. Widdop was initially offered to the Raiders as part of a deal to send George Williams home. At the time it was rejected because the Milk wanted to keep Georgie boy. Unfortunately that didn’t work out.

From a purely football perspective I understand the interest in Widdop. It’s not exciting, but at least it’s functional. He’s a strong ball-runner, a quality ball-player and has a capable short kicking game. At his best he has great touch in the line, and was Dally-M five-eighth of the year in 2017. He’d be fine operating as first receiver on the right side. Given Jack has begun to shift around a lot more this season, he’d also be capable of working on the left as either first or second receiver. He’d be a good fit around Tom Starling too, taking pressure of the young hooker to play a bigger role in the attack. And if, god forbid, sanity reigns and Josh Hodgson is kept, I can see a world where they can function together.

Reportedly he’s been surviving and thriving in the Super League, with 7 try assists (9th in the competition) and 9 tries (3rd in the competition). He does have 31 missed tackles this season (7th in the competition). That’s hardly ideal, but carrying one half who isn’t a great defender is standard issue in the NRL. Jack Wighton smashing dudes from five-eighth in defence is an anomaly, not the norm. It would mean that the emphasis on getting the defensive support at right edge at its best would be necessary, putting more pressure on who the Raiders think are their best defenders at right-backrower and right centre. It would also mean making sure your fullback gets into the right spot at A defender when teams split you 70/30 (hint hint Matt Dufty). But it’s a manageable issue.

The price is right too. The word is Widdop is asking for 500k, which is a little below the average market for a starting halfback (but a little high for Widdop). If Canberra can keep it below that, it’s probably nearing a little under the cap space afforded by Williams’ departure, which would leave the potential of Hodgson’s departure providing even more options for bringing talent to Canberra.

The issues are obvious. Widdop spent most of 2018 and 2019 on the bench with shoulders that just didn’t work, and I’m fairly certain chucked in some hamstring issues as well. He’s hardly an iron-man. Given the Raiders drew a line through Ash Taylor because of his injury history, it’s fascinating they’ve confirmed their pursuing Widdop. He’ll be 33 by the time the 2022 season rolls around, so this is hardly a play for the future. Much like Shaun Johnson, the benefit seems to be as a capable bridge player between the Raiders and their next long-term halfback. Much like Shaun Johnson, you’d have to make sure that Sam Williams and Brad Schneider are ready to fill in at the drop of a hat when the inevitable happens. Johnson is a better player, but he’s probably a couple hundred grand more expensive, and doesn’t appear to be that interested in Canberra. So here we are.

It’s hardly the heights of the free agency market, but this is what Canberra’s future is for now. There are no options that will choose Canberra that don’t have warts. This is about finding a way to maintain something that still feels like a finals contender (and this might, if you squint). Luke Brooks, Mitchell Pearce, Gareth Widdop are all versions of the same theme. A flawed player that might thrive in Canberra if not relied on to drive the ship. It is what it is. The way forward is with the youth around these players developing, rather than hoping you’re getting a career revival.

There’s also the issue of homesickness. Widdop asked for a release at the end of 2018, with three years left on his deal because he wanted to go back to England. Coming to Little Britain may ameliorate that, but I can understand the Raiders being worried given what’s happened with John Bateman and George Williams. If Widdop was homesick before Covid, well. Yeah.

Update: JB the captain of the bench for The Green Machine Podcast and all-round hero of the people points out that Widdop’s family actually remained in Australia when he went back to England. So there you go. Homesickness is not so much of a risk!

Whether will want to come to Canberra will remain to be seen. Widdop is clearly keen to come back to the NRL, and now Canberra are interested. Now we play the waiting game.

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