Simon Finnigan became Widnes’ fourth different coach since the departure of Denis Betts in May 2018 and will be tasked with leading the club to the Championship play-offs in 2021.
A popular figure as a player in two different spells, which took in parts of both the Vikings’ Super League eras, Finnigan is an adopted “hometown” boy, despite being born in Warrington and growing up in Australia.
He fills the quite sizeable void created by the shock departure of Tim Sheens at the beginning of October when the World Cup winning coach, and coach of the Canberra Raiders team beaten by Widnes in the 1989 World Club Challenge, handed in his resignation.
Sheens’ exit remains a mystery, with no further comments from either camp. The resignation came out of the blue, and though there had been some suggestion that his departure was linked to his trusted video analyst right-hand man being released from his role, that has not been confirmed.
His departure was all the more surprising given the comments made by the new signings for 2021, all of whom stated that Sheens was one of the reasons they decided to sign. As it is, Paul Clough, Lee Jewitt, Matt Cook and Steve Tyrer will play under Finnigan next season.
Finnigan has cut his coaching teeth first at Toronto Wolfpack as assistant to Paul Rowley, and then as head coach at Newcastle Thunder, where he worked under Betts, who is still there in a director of rugby capacity. He led Thunder to the League One play-off final, where they were surprisingly beaten by Oldham, denying them promotion to the Championship.
He said: “It is a massive honour; I feel privileged to get this opportunity, which means a lot to me.”
The ongoing situation regarding a club being elevated to Super League, plus the unknown of which League One team – potentially Finnigan’s former employers Newcastle – will step up to the Championship, means there’s a bit of uncertainty as to where the club might place next season.
Still, the rugby betting odds should still place Widnes as contenders for the Championship play-offs, even if as an outsider to win promotion by winning the Grand Final.
The likes of Leigh, London, Toulouse and Bradford will be up there, if not gone completely, while York have recruited strongly and Featherstone will be there or thereabouts as always.
Finnigan, now 38, played for Widnes in the Championship back in 2011, and was part of the Super League squad in 2012.
After making 70 appearances in his first spell between 2003 and 2005, he racked up a total of 102 games in a Widnes shirt – unfortunately part of the side that was relegated from Super League, before moving on to Salford, Bradford and Huddersfield.
He fits the model of young coach with plenty of playing experience and potential, and it’s certainly true to say that there wasn’t a plethora of coaching options that jump off the page, not just for the Widnes job, but for any in rugby league.
With the work done by the club since the dark days of February 2019, Finnigan seems the ideal fit for the long-term and sustainable plans of the club.
In these unusual times, fans – having not had a game to go to since March – are desperate for any sort of announcement to cling on to.
While in a normal year, season tickets would now be available and as such there would be announcements about new signings and new kits, none of that is happening as yet, due to the ongoing uncertainty over just when next season will be able to start.
The extension of the furlough scheme gives the clubs at least some financial security with regards to their biggest overhead, player wages, while the recent news that crowds may be allowed back to sporting events in the coming weeks may prompt rugby league clubs to start sooner rather than later, particularly below Super League.
With four new signings in the bag, fans have been asking for more, but there doesn’t seem to be much else on the horizon, at least for now.
Those four have joined 16 players retained from last year, while four players – Oliver Brookes, Daniel Hill, Will Tilleke and Josh Wilde – have stepped up from the reserves.
All four were regulars for the reserves, with Hill a full-back, Brookes a winger, Tilleke a prop and Wilde a back-rower. Both Wildes and Brookes scored tries in the pre-season friendly win against Rochdale back in January.