Widdop is biggest threat to Australia in final, says Slater

Gareth Widdop.
Gareth Widdop.
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Australia’s Billy Slater, the greatest full-back of recent times, believes opposite number Gareth Widdop, his former understudy at Melbourne Storm, will be England’s main “strike” threat in Saturday’s World Cup final.

That is despite the fact Halifax-born Widdop actually began the competition as their stand-off and was named the NRL’s best 
No 6 in 2017.

It marks a surprise evolution for the 28-year-old who started out deputising for Slater at Melbourne in 2010 before switching to stand-off due to his mentor’s brilliance and then moving on to St George Illawarra.

England have, indeed, looked a finer attacking threat since Widdop switched to No 1 for their last group win over France, Kevin Brown taking over in the halves.

And Slater – who scored two tries in Australia’s 2013 World Cup final win over New Zealand – said: “Gareth is just a natural footy player.

“He can play anywhere really. As long as he has got the ball in his hands, he is going to be a danger to the opposition.

“He’d always had this sort of potential. We all know what Gareth Widdop is capable of.

“He has got a running game but is more a skilful passer of the football. He poses a threat out the back and distributes the ball on to his outside men.

“Being aware of where Gareth is at all times when they are attacking our line is probably key for us.

“He is a big indicator of where they are going to go. He is probably their strike weapon.”

Slater has also been impressed by England’s wingers, Huddersfield Giants’ Jermaine McGillvary and Leeds Rhinos’ Ryan Hall, and reckons the final could be finely-balanced.

“They have got just as much chance as us,” said the Queensland State of Origin legend.

“It all comes down to the 80 minutes on Saturday night; whoever performs the best and plays the best rugby league will win the World Cup.

“They have put themselves in a pretty handy position.

“Both their wingers have really impressed me, especially after our first encounter down in Melbourne.

“McGillvary and Hall are so hard to handle, they are big, strong lads so we are going to have to make sure our kick-chase is the best it’s been all tour and handle them with a lot of numbers and be quite physical as that is how they run the ball.”

The 34-year-old admits the game at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium could be his last for the Green and Golds as he weighs up the prospect of retiring from representative rugby league with only one end-of-season Test match lined up for the Kangaroos in 2018.

“You never take these sort of jerseys for granted,” he said. “I know that first hand after missing out over the last three years through injury.

“It’s been a good run in the green and gold so if this is my last game then I’m OK with that.”

Meanwhile, Australia captain Cameron Smith has been crowned Golden Boot winner for the second time.

The stellar hooker, 34, became the world’s best player again – he did so firstly in 2007 – after beating off competition from McGillvary, Melbourne team-mate Suliasi Vunivalu and Tonga forward Jason Taumalolo.