Returning Widdop ready to lift Dragons in NRL finals showdown

A packed Suncorp Stadium. An NRL elimination final. 40,000 Queenslanders baying for blood.

Finals return: Gareth Widdop. Picture: NRL Photos/Gregg Porteous.

Finals return: Gareth Widdop. Picture: NRL Photos/Gregg Porteous.

While this may sound daunting for some, it’s exactly where Gareth Widdop wants to be on Sunday afternoon.

After a disappointing finish to the season, St George Illawarra will head into Sunday’s sudden-death playoff against the Broncos as heavy underdogs. With many experts and fans tipping a meek finals exit, Widdop said it’s a tag the team will relish. 

“Brisbane have been playing some really good football, they’ve knocked off the top teams the last couple of weeks and they’re at home,” Widdop said. 

“Yes, we’ll take the underdog tag. We’ve just got to go up there as a group, get together and realise the opportunity we’ve got ahead of ourselves. It’s going to be a big game, a big challenge, but we’re certainly very confident. 

“We know within the four walls at the Dragons what we’re capable of and what we can do on our day. If we turn up with the right attitude, then anything can happen.”

Widdop will return to the side after a three-week injury layoff and his inclusion is set to immediately boost the team’s chances of pulling off a Suncorp Stadium ambush.

While quick to downplay the impact of his inclusion, Widdop acknowledged his return will free up struggling half Ben Hunt to play with more freedom. 

Hunt has copped the brunt of the public criticism in recent weeks, but Widdop expects his halves partner to relish the opportunity to knock off his former team. 

“We complement each other really well, obviously Benny’s been under the pump a lot the last couple of weeks. Hopefully I can just get back and take a lot of that pressure off him, because he’s a dangerous player, especially when he’s running the football.

“With myself being out the last couple of weeks, he’s probably taken on more of a halfback role, with Kurt Mann a strong ball runner. Hopefully when I get back this week, it can free him up a little bit and start taking the line on, because he’s a dangerous player.”

The Dragons recorded a confidence boosting 24-14 victory over the Knights to close out the regular season on Saturday afternoon. While the team looked scratchy in attack, the porous defensive line from the previous week against the Bulldogs once more resembled the brick wall we had seen throughout the first half of the season.

After missing 27 tackles against the Bulldogs, the Dragons missed just 14 in Newcastle.

With defence taking on greater importance in finals fixtures, Widdop recognised Saturday’s performance laid an important platform to help the team return to the early season form that saw them ranked the competition’s benchmark.

“It was a good win. It’s always difficult going up to Newcastle on Old Boys Day and getting the win.

“For the amount of possession Newcastle had, especially in that first half, we did a really good job. We got back to defending well, which we have spoken about and in the end managed to come away with the win.

“Finals games are just about completing well and defending strong, it’s pretty simple sort of stuff. You’ve got to turn up with a good attitude and that’s what we’ve got to do. If we turn out with a good attitude and a desire that we want to go out there and perform, then we will.”