By Jack Brady (NRL.com)
A sliced kick out on the full from the boot of Dragons five-eighth Gareth Widdop may well have proved the difference in the Red V's 11-10 golden point loss to the Bulldogs but his teammates and coach Paul McGregor refused to blame him for the loss and the side's elimination from the NRL Telstra Premiership finals series.
Earlier in the game Widdop kicked two clutch goals – the second after he was ambushed, while grounded, by the knees of Frank Pritchard and a flying crusher tackle moments later by Sam Kasiano – to send the game into extra time after guiding his team through the final quarter of the game without injured halves partner Benji Marshall.
But on this fateful day for Widdop, two rights were followed by a wrong and his kick out on the full, in a valiant attempt of to nail a 40/20, saw Bulldogs' Josh Reynolds kick the match-winning field goal four tackles later in the 84th minute.
As he slumped to the ground following Reynolds's field goal the teary-eyed 26-year-old was consoled by opposite skipper and England teammate James Graham, following a game where he was only cleared to play with his heavily strapped quad after making it through the warm-up.
"Gareth's a big game player and someone who has got us to where we are. And he'll continue to do that. He hadn't trained for two weeks, he's done minimal work this week because he was in a hospital bed seven days ago," McGregor said.
"He goes out there under clutch situations and comes up with the right game management. To nail a conversion from the sideline and again just before extra time shows he's a world class player.
"He's in the elite class and I'm glad to have him in my team."
Departing lock Trent Merrin agreed with his coach, and said he drew inspiration from the clutch plays Widdop produced not once, but twice throughout proceedings.
"Just the focus and determination from him to kick those goals, it was incredible especially the crowd giving it to him. Really it is inspirational," Merrin said.
"You don't get to feel those positions, when the pressure's on like that. He slotted both of them like it was easy. It's a credit to him and the hard work that he's put in over the years."
Bravely, Widdop fronted the press to own his mistakes and talked the media through his thinking at such a crucial time of the game.
"[The 40/20 attempt] was a play that I saw an opportunity to go for and at the time I backed myself to kick it," he said.
"Because as players these are the things you have to try and do. That's what you practice for and unfortunately that didn't come off."
Widdop talked down his clutch play status, bringing his goal kicking prowess back to sticking to due process.
"I suppose that's what finals are about and you practice a hell of a lot at training. Especially goal kicking," he said.
"I went through my processes that I do every kick and fortunately enough they went over."
The 14-Test veteran also confirmed his quad injury wouldn't hinder his certain selection for England's end of season series against New Zealand.