England v Tonga: Elliott Whitehead prepares for Headingley farewell

As he closes one door, another is opening for one of Yorkshire’s most successful rugby league exports.

Bradford-born Elliott Whitehead will call time on his England career after earning his 27th cap in today’s third Test against Tonga at Headingley. The 34-year-old second-rower has just completed his eighth season in Australia’s NRL with Canberra Raiders and has one year left on his contract there, but is already drawing up plans to stay in the game after he hangs up his boots.

And though he won’t rule out a return to England at some stage, he revealed at the moment he believes his future lies Down Under. Whitehead revealed: “I have kind of got something sorted with Canberra. Hopefully I will go into coaching.

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“I’m not too sure what that role will be yet. I will sit down with Ricky [Stuart, Raiders’ coach] towards the back end of the season and go through that with him, but I will definitely be staying in rugby league somewhere and most likely at Canberra Raiders.”

England's Elliott Whitehead is tackled by Tonga's Isaiya Katoa (Picture: Olly Hassell/SWPix.com)England's Elliott Whitehead is tackled by Tonga's Isaiya Katoa (Picture: Olly Hassell/SWPix.com)
England's Elliott Whitehead is tackled by Tonga's Isaiya Katoa (Picture: Olly Hassell/SWPix.com)

Whitehead began his career at Bradford Bulls, scoring 30 tries in 100 Super League games from 2009 to 2013. He then spent three seasons with Catalans Dragons before joining Canberra in 2016.

Despite a lack of silverware, it has been an outstanding career for club and country and he reflected: “I am proud of my achievements in rugby league.

“Going over to the NRL and doing what I’ve done over there, I am up to nearly 200 games and that is pretty big in terms of what people achieve in that competition.

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“I have still got another year at the Raiders and I’ll be trying my best to win the Premiership. That’s my goal going into next year and hopefully I can finish on a high.”

Looking back on his England career, which began against the Kiwis in 2014, Whitehead added: “I’ve got many memories, but I think winning the Test series against New Zealand in 2017 was probably the biggest.

“The World Cup in 2017 was great and playing over in Auckland against Tonga, I think that atmosphere was crazy, probably the best I’ve played in. I’ve played in an NRL Grand Final and I think the Tonga game beats that.

“I am always proud when I pull an England jersey on, I try my best and I don’t want to ever lose that jersey, I don’t want to ever have a performance where I don’t get picked the next time.

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“I always try to put my best foot forward and hopefully I have done that over the last nine years. I feel like I’ve had a good international career.”

England go into today’s Test 2-0 ahead and with a series victory already assured. That justified Whitehead’s decision to play on after the World Cup semi-final defeat by Samoa 12 months ago, which he conceded was his most painful memory.

“I probably owed it to Waney [England coach Shaun Wane],” he admitted. “We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to last year. He is a great man and a great coach and I thought coming back and helping him win this Test series is good for him as well as myself.”

A new generation of youngsters are taking over at international level and Whitehead feels England have a bright future. He said: “We’ve shown that over the last two weeks.

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“The Tonga side are full of NRL superstars and the [English] young kids who have come in, like Harry Smith and Mikey Lewis and Harry Newman, have stepped up and shown what they are capable of.

“Moving forward, the more training and game time they get together, the better they’ll be. It’s difficult at international level when you’re not with each other every week; you only get a certain amount of time, so the more they can spend together and get to know each other, it’s going to be good for England. I have to move on and step aside and let those young kids take England forward.”

Wane paid tribute to Whitehead ahead of his international swan song. “People had always told me how much they thought I would love to coach Elliott Whitehead,” he recalled.

“When I became England boss I selected him and it immediately became clear to me what they meant.

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“Elliott is a born leader and has shown incredible desire, passion and work ethic every time he has worn the England shirt. He is the very epitome of a Test Match player.

“It has been a genuine pleasure to have him involved with this team during my time in charge and I know how much the younger members of the squad have benefitted from his presence.

“I wish him all the best in his final season at Canberra and hopefully we can get the job done for him this weekend.”