When Ricky Stuart names his team every week on a Tuesday, there’s certain names he doesn’t have to move from the spreadsheet.
One of those is Elliott Whitehead, who has been one of the mainstays of the Canberra Raiders starting 13 since making his club debut in 2016.
In a remarkable record, Whitehead has missed just one match since his first in the green jersey, that coming through suspension, and has played in 116 out of a possible 117 games for the club.
Further to that, he’s only missed 113 minutes out of those 116 matches, with the majority of those minutes coming through the coaches instructions, with Whitehead leaving the field with a reluctance and attitude of a man who wants to compete and win in every game.
Raiders.com.au sat down with Whitehead this week to find out more about the enigmatic Englishman, to find out what it is that drives him to succeed and how he’s travelled halfway around the globe to become one of the Raiders most important players.
Often going under the radar compared to others, Elliott Whitehead’s form and contribution to the green machine certainly doesn’t go unnoticed at the club.
“He’s the most underrated footballer in the competition,” was Coach Ricky Stuart’s quick response to a journalist when asked about Whitehead’s form following the round 8 win over the Dragons.
There’s no doubt that Whitehead is an invaluable part of Canberra’s recent successes. The England international has only missed one game since joining the club from Catalans in 2015. That match came in 2017 when he copped a one-game suspension for tripping.
A versatile second-rower, Whitehead is known for his work-rate and ability to cover several different positions if required. This has seen the former Bradford Bulls man even step in at five-eighth for the Raiders.
So, what does Whitehead say about his versatility and endurance?
“I actually used to play football (soccer) when I was a kid but I was never any good, then one day my neighbour who used to coach a rugby league side took me along one day to training and from that day on I’ve never looked back,” Whitehead said.
“I still have some of my best mates from that team, I always used to play up a year above my age when coming through the juniors. I started out as a halfback at first. I’ve played centre, loose forward (lock) and even spent some time growing up as a hooker!”
“I reckon by learning the game in different positions has certainly helped me become the player that I am today but I’m happy that I’ve found my home in the backrow,” Whitehead laughs.
In his youth, Whitehead idolised his hometown team the Bradford Bulls and looked up to a lot of the Bradford Bulls players who were very dominant in the early 2000’s.
“Being a Bradford lad, I looked up to a lot of the Bulls players that won a few World Club Challenges, but as I got older, I looked up to guys like Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley to base my game around. They are tough players who never took a backwards step. I wanted to be a player that everyone wanted to play with. I try to turn up every week and be that player that doesn’t let his teammates down.”
So how did Whitehead go from being a lad from Bradford, end up playing for the Canberra Raiders in the NRL?
Originally from Buttershaw in Bradford, Whitehead came through the Bradford Bulls junior systems before incredibly, he was told he wouldn’t be signed by Bradford when he was 16.
“When you get to 16, you either get told you’ll be re-signed or told you aren’t good enough. I got told that I wouldn’t be re-signed so I went and played for West Bowling who are in the best amateur league in the country.”
“I played under Leon Pryce at West Bowling who was playing at the Bradford Bulls at the time as well. I made my Challenge Cup debut for West Bowling and then a year later the Bulls rang me up again and wanted to sign me. I had to quit my job as an electrician and go back to training and playing full time.”
After spending five seasons with the Bulls, Whitehead felt a change was needed to enhance his career. He ended up in the South of France with Catalans.
“I had a few friends that I used to play with at Bradford who were now at Catalans. It all happened really quickly, I met with the coach and president and I signed with them for two and a half years.”
“I felt that my career really took a step forward when I went to Catalans, I played with some great players that I learnt a lot from such as Louis Anderson, Zeb Taia and Steve Menzies. While playing for Catalans I ended up getting selected for England during my first year at the club.”
With his contract at Catalans coming towards the end, Whitehead knew that he had to test himself in the NRL and that now was the right time.
“I felt like I was playing some of my best footy and I was 25 years old at the time. I had quite a bit of interest from NRL clubs, but it came down to choose between the Sharks and the Raiders. My mind was made up when Ricky Stuart sold the club to me and it also helped that I knew Josh Hodgson as well.”
“Ricky has been really good to me, he said that he’d make sure my partner Grace and I would be looked after and everything he has said has been true so far. He’s a very passionate coach who cares about his players.”
Whitehead admits that at first it was a daunting prospect to move to Australia and is grateful for his supportive partner Grace in joining him on the ride.
“Grace has been very supportive of me, she’s from Bradford originally as well, we spoke about moving to Australia when I was in talks with the Raiders and she was right behind me and the move. She’s got a great job here and has made friends away from the Rugby League circle and we both want to stay here for the rest of our lives. I’d like to stay here at the Raiders for the rest of my career.”
Before Covid-19 restrictions were put in place, Whitehead would prove to be a popular player amongst the staff at the Canberra Raiders when he would bring his two French Bulldogs Theo and Sonny into Raiders HQ to run around the offices while Whitehead would see the physios and receive treatment.
“When we moved out here, we wanted to settle in quickly and I’ve always wanted a French Bulldog. After I got one, I got a bit excited and decided to get another one. They are a part of the family now and I can’t imagine my life in Canberra without them.
As time passed on, Whitehead has established himself in the side and has gone on to become not only a key figure in the Raider’s forward pack but also an important figure away from the field. Whitehead knows the value of team morale and has taken it upon himself to make sure the team are bonding away from the field.
“I try to get the squad together as much as I can. I’m a big believer that by getting the team together away from the field can help translate into success on the field. I like to get the boys for a night of bowling or even a few rounds of golf.”
Whitehead has also been influential in helping his other English teammates settle into the club. His history with John Bateman also stems back from when he was back with the Bulls.
“John came into the Bulls squad in 2009 when he was 16, obviously he didn’t drive back then and I would drive past where he used to live. I used to pick him up on the way to training and I would make him walk up a big hill which was on the way to our training base because I was late most days, he used to hate it, he still reminds me about those days even today!”
“John and I have become great friends, we have a strong friendship and hang around a lot with each other away from the field. We have a few of the same friends from back in Bradford and we like to go back there in the off-season and catch up with a lot of them.”
It’s these relationships and connections which have also seen Whitehead play a role in the recruitment of fellow Englishman, even playing a role in getting current halfback George Williams to Canberra.
Coach Ricky Stuart has often spoken to Whitehead about English players that he has been interested in signing and it was after a famous England win at the back end of 2018 where Whitehead decided to take it upon himself to talk up his now Raiders teammate George Williams to Ricky Stuart.
“We had just beaten New Zealand in Hull and we went out for a few drinks after the game. I was speaking to George and he told me he’d love to come out here. I said to him that I’d ring Ricky now and tell him to sign you. George was completely rattled. He didn’t know what to do. I just said to Ricky that we needed to sign him.”
“I spoke to Ricky the next day and said sorry for ringing him up after having a few beers. He said it was fine and that they had been looking at George for some time and that if he wants to come here, they’ll look into it.”
Despite loving his time in the nation’s capital, Whitehead admits that he does miss his family back home and admits that his family passionately follow his progress at the Raiders and watch all his games back in England.
I’d like to stay here at the Raiders for the rest of my career.
“My family get up most mornings back home for my games. Unfortunately, my dad passed away in 2012. He was my main motivation in driving me on to succeed in Rugby League but my mum still gets up at 5.30am to watch all my games on her phone. If there’s a game on at 8.30am she’ll go to my Nanna’s house to pick her up and watch the games with her. If I have a bad game, they are all quick to remind me if I played well or not,” Whitehead laughs.
There’s no disputing Whitehead’s value to the club and team culture. His experience and durability truly make him an important cog in the Green Machine.