St George Illawarra captain Gareth Widdop will leave the Dragons at the end of the season to join English Super League club Warrington.
The Dragons confirmed they would release Widdop from his contract at the end of the 2019 campaign on compassionate grounds.
British-born Widdop told the club he had a desire to return home to England to play in the Super League and be closer to his grandparents.
The release comes with the condition that if Widdop was to return to the NRL then it could only be with the Dragons.
Widdop emigrated to Australia with his family at the age of 16. He made his NRL debut with Melbourne in 2010 and won the premiership with the Storm in 2012.
He then joined St George Illawarra in 2014, with this to be his sixth and final season in the red V.
“I've made a big decision in my career having decided to move back to England next year,” Widdop said.
“It certainly hasn't been the easiest decision but sometimes in life we have aspirations and playing in the Super League has been one of mine for a while now.
“The Dragons have played a big part in my career. I've been here a long time now and to get to where we have with the roster we've got, to leave it all behind especially being the captain will be difficult.
“This situation has been handled in the most professional way possible. I worked really closely with the club who have been great. We worked towards getting the best outcome and I thank the Dragons for that.
“I still have the 2019 season to come. The reason we play this game is to win premierships. We have the squad to win it this year and I'll be doing everything possible to achieve that.”
The 29-year-old will link with former Dragons coach Steve Price at Warrington and said he was looking forward to testing himself in the Super League.
“With decisions like this there are a lot of things to look into. I think Warrington, in terms of the club itself, has got a lot of history, is a great team and is run very well. I have a lot of mates in the team and it’s been a top club for a number of years. It’s a club I want to be a part of and win some silverware with,” he said.
“I’ve been away from home for a long time now and growing up in Halifax I always had dreams of playing in Super League. I’m at the stage in my career now when I have that opportunity. [Warrington owner] Simon [Moran], [Warrington chief executive] Karl [Fitzpatrick] and Steve have given me that opportunity to come home and live out a childhood dream. I’m really excited for that. It’s a long way off yet but it’s something I’m looking forward to.
“With my experience of playing in NRL and having been lucky enough to represent my country, I am hoping I can draw from my leadership and bring that to Warrington. It’s a good team with some great players in the squad already. Playing in the halves it’s a key position and hopefully I can do my part for the team whatever that might be.
“I’m looking forward to playing in front of Warrington fans and the fans of Super League in general. The crowd gets behind you and I’m excited for that. Every time I’ve been home and played for England the crowd is certainly behind you and I’ve witnessed what Warrington fans are like first hand having played here a couple of years ago. I’m now looking forward to playing on the right side of it.”
St George Illawarra have already recruited Corey Norman from Parramatta, with Widdop likely to shift to fullback to accommodate Norman in the halves.
But whether the 27-year-old Norman has the ability to adequately replace Widdop alongside former Queensland No.7 Ben Hunt remains to be seen.
Fitzpatrick said Widdop’s signing was arguably the biggest in Warrington’s history – and potentially the biggest in the history of Super League.
“Bringing in this world-class player is a major boost for the sport in this country,” he said.
“In 2020 Gareth will be a fantastic addition to an already formidable squad. This, once again, demonstrates the ambition of Warrington Wolves.”
Price said he looked forward to reuniting with Widdop at the Wolves.
“I’ve had the pleasure of coaching Gareth having signed him when at the Dragons. He’s a terrific person who sets high standards for himself and is a really good family man,” he said.
“He’s matured into an outstanding leader and has played on the biggest stage in the game at international level. Gareth’s a player with integrity and a high level of experience, he’ll complement our team in 2020 and help take us to another level.
“He’s a huge signing for the game in England. It says how good our competition is when a marquee player in Australia shows the desire to come and play in Super League while holding aspirations to keep playing for his country.
“We see ourselves as a benchmark club in Super League and to be able to sign a player like Gareth is credit to our owner in Simon Moran, chairman Stuart Middleton and all involved.”