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Widdop gears himself up for a tough test against Tonga.

Byline: IAN LAYBOURN Rugby League Reporter

GARETH Widdop is expecting an explosive start to the Great Britain tour against Tonga in Hamilton on Saturday, having already witnessed close up the passion that drives the Pacific Islanders.

The Warrington-bound stand-off is one of 10 survivors from the England team that narrowly avoided an upset in the 2017 World Cup semi-final in Auckland, where Tongan fans among the 30,800 crowd turned Mount Smart into a sea of red that almost swept their team to victory.

Wayne Bennett's men were cruising at 20-0 midway through the second half but, after a tremendous fightback by the Islanders, were hanging on for a 20-18 win in arguably the most dramatic World Cup match of all time, grateful for a disallowed try in the last minute.

"It was one of the best atmospheres I've ever been a part of in terms of how loud it was and how crazy the game went," Widdop said.

"The fans were unbelievable. In the last 10 minutes they got a roll on, the crowd got behind them and they nearly got us in the end. It was an incredible match and no doubt it will be the same at the weekend.

"It's going to be tough but that's why you play Test football, to have these tough matches and play against the best."

The Halifax-born Widdop, who made his mark in the NRL with Melbourne and St George Illawarra, has won 28 England caps since making his debut in 2010 but believes the return of Great Britain raises the bar in international rugby league.

"The playing group is very similar but the jersey does mean a lot," he said. "It's certainly very iconic and, as a kid growing up, it's all we ever used to watch - Great Britain against the Kiwis or the Aussies.

"Pulling that jersey on will certainly mean a lot to a lot of people. I remember watching blokes like Jamie Peacock, who is our football manager, and Adrian Morley wearing that jersey with pride."

Widdop was forced to sit out the 2018 Test series against New Zealand with a shoulder injury and, after recovering from a similar injury this year, is aiming to make up for lost time.

Saturday's game against the Tongan Invitational XIII is followed by back-to-back Tests against the Kiwis in Auckland and Christchurch, before the first Lions tour for 23 years ends with a trip to Papua New Guinea.

"To miss out last year was disappointing but I've got the opportunity this year and I'm certainly going to make the most of it," he said.

"I haven't been to New Zealand for a couple of years. It's going to be a tough couple of weeks but I'm looking forward to it."

Widdop got the nod for one of the halfback spots after seeing off fierce competition and is delighted to be back in his favourite position after playing full-back in the World Cup.

"I think there's five or six of us, maybe even seven, for that halves/full-back role," he said.

"The competition is certainly good for the group. I'm very grateful I get the opportunity again and hopefully I can do the job. "In the World Cup we lost Jonny (Lomax) to injury, so Wayne asked me to play

fullback and it worked out well in the end.

"But it's in the halves where I see myself, that's where I've played most of my career."


Gareth Widdop in action for England

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Author:IAN LAYBOURN Rugby League Reporter
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 25, 2019
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