Widnes coach Simon Finnigan says the multiple links between the Vikings and Championship new boys Newcastle provide an exciting extra dimension to the sides’ first league match of the season on Sunday.
It’s a quick return to Kingston Park for Finnigan, who was at the Newcastle helm for two seasons, guiding them to the League 1 play-off final in 2019, before succeeding Tim Sheens at Widnes in November.
His replacement at Thunder, fellow former Ireland international Eamon O’Carroll, spent the last six seasons of his playing career at Widnes before beginning his coaching career there under the tutelage of current Newcastle director of rugby Denis Betts.
Finnigan has signed forward Adam Lawton, who played under him in the North-East last year, while O’Carroll’s new recruits include four from Widnes – the Chapelhow twins (props Ted and Jay), fullback or winger Jack Johnson and centre/secondrow Sam Wilde.
Thunder have been elevated from League 1 to take the place of Leigh, who have joined Super League, and Finnigan said: “I think they will be a strong addition to the league.
“I think you could see that from the Challenge Cup (first-round) tie at Swinton, because they did well against a very solid and experienced Championship side.
“Having trailed by 16 at half-time, they got right back into it, and over the whole tie, they created more than enough opportunities to have won it.
“They had a lot of debutants, so it was never going to be the most fluent of displays, but they will have learned plenty from the match and will have had time to fine-tune before they play us, so we’ll be wary.
“It’s going to be a really interesting game, and all the links between the clubs add to the excitement as we both prepare.
“While handshakes might be off limits, there will be plenty of elbow bumps before the game, never mind after.
Finnigan was forced to leave prop Calum O’Neill out of the Challenge Cup second-round tie at home to Whitehaven after he suffered concussion during the first-round win at West Wales Raiders.
Plenty of fight in French challengers says Houles
TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE will be helped through the challenges of this season by the experience of eight years of battling against the odds, says coach Sylvain Houles.
The former France international believes the difficulties of the past will serve his side well as they target promotion to Super League against the backdrop of the pandemic.
“It’s tough at the moment, but we’ve had to face some huge challenges over the years and it has created a feeling that we can overcome anything,” he told League Express.
Current UK government Covid-control measures have left Toulouse without home fixtures against part-time clubs in the early stages of the season.
And unless restrictions are relaxed, the club face an uphill task to complete the required number of fixtures to reach a percentage win ratio that will ensure play-off contention.
“It’s not something in our control,” said Houles, “So there is no point worrying about it. Things are changing daily and all we can do is focus on the immediate task in front of us.
“We are a tight-knit group and these challenges only make us tighter.”
Toulouse fly to York for Saturday’s opening league match and Houles is under no illusions about the size of the task ahead.
“It’s always a tough game against York,” he said: “And especially with it being their first match at their new stadium.
“It’s a coincidence because last year the first game of our season at our new stadium was against York, so we know how they will be feeling.
“We’ve had a very long pre-season, we’ve had 17 weeks of training so far so we’re ready to go.
“We had a trial match against Catalans Dragons and I could see the excitement among the players to get back into competitive action.”
Kear hopes twin-turbo will drive Bulls forward
BRADFORD BULLS coach John Kear will be hoping to cause Championship rivals double trouble this season after signing Ben Evans.
The experienced forward has penned a two-year deal following his departure from Toulouse.
And the 28-year-old, who has played under Kear for Wales, will team up with twin brother Rhys, the versatile back who joined the Bulls in 2019.
It will be Ben’s second spell at Bradford after a short stint on loan from Warrington, where Rhys also played, in 2013.
The prop had six seasons at Warrington and two at London Broncos before joining Toulouse for the 2019 campaign.
His arrival at Bradford is a boost after his fellow forward Sam Hallas sustained a broken jaw during the Challenge Cup first-round defeat at Featherstone and prop Dan Fleming was withdrawn late on because of a groin injury.
The new arrival is targeting a debut in the Championship opener away to Sheffield on Sunday.
“I will bring some experience to the side and try to help the boys with what I know,” he said.
“I have worked with John for the last couple of years now – I know him well on and off the field and I am looking forward to working with him and the strong squad he has built.
“Hopefully I can start training this week and do what I can to earn a place in the squad for Sheffield.”
Kear, who recently recruited another seasoned prop in ex-St Helens and Wakefield man Anthony Walker, believes Evans’ arrival is a statement of intent.
“I am really pleased. Fortunately we were in the right place at the right time with Ben and with Sam’s injury, we moved very quickly,” he said.
“He brings hard work, the ability to play long minutes and that is what we need. He will be very important to us.
“His profile fits very well into what we require now and what we require going forward because it is a two-year deal.
“I would like to thank the Bradford Bulls Squad Booster Association for their contribution to getting the deal done.”
Rams coach fires out early warning
DEWSBURY RAMS‘ disappointed coach Lee Greenwood has warned his players a “drastic improvement” is needed as they prepare to face Whitehaven for the second time in a fortnight.
The sides clash in their league opener in Yorkshire on Saturday, 14 days after the Cumbrians overcame the first-half dismissal of Callum Phillips to win 23-16 at home in the first round of the Challenge Cup.
“The performance was awful. There were so many uncharacteristic mistakes from lots of players. There weren’t really any positives to take, and I just hope it was a one-off,” said Greenwood.
“We were soft in places, there was no composure and there were so many dropped balls.
“Some players must improve and we might look to strengthen the team in some areas.
“I know, the coaching staff know and the lads know we need to learn from the defeat, move on and make a drastic improvement before the next game.”
Meanwhile, Greenwood says Joe Wardill’s decision to call time on his playing career at the age of just 23 is the correct one.
The former Hull KR back who has been plagued by hip problems had hoped to resurrect his career with the Rams.
Having had second thoughts after announcing his retirement back in 2019 following three operations, Wardill played for Rovers’ Reserve team before last year’s lockdown and signed for the Rams in September.
Greenwood explained: “He came into pre-season pain-free and was looking good in training, but over the last couple months his hip problems have resurfaced.
“I’m sure we could have managed him in order to play the odd game, but we need to think about his health and wellbeing going forward.
“It’s a real shame for both him and us as a club, but he has made the right decision.”
Beverley-born Wardill made 17 first-team appearances for Rovers, scoring three tries, between 2016-18.
Loan pair set to pep up Panthers
HALIFAX PANTHERS will have two loan rangers available for Friday’s home Championship opener against London Broncos.
Huddersfield centre or backrow Sam Hewitt and Wigan hooker Amir Bourouh are both hoping for a Panthers debut after arriving on season-long deals.
Both are 20 and while Hewitt featured nine times for the Giants last season (and once for Halifax on dual registration), Bourouh, who played his junior rugby for Halifax side Siddal, figured on three occasions for Wigan.
Also in contention are newly-signed centre Greg Worthington, who missed the Challenge Cup first-round defeat by Batley at The Shay because of Covid protocols, and prop Ben Kavanagh, who is back from a dislocated hip injury suffered during the 2020 pre-season.
Worthington, 30, has penned a two-year deal after playing once for Toronto last term. He has also been at Featherstone and Leigh and has scored 70 tries in 141 career outings.
Halifax-born Kavanagh, 33, like Bourouh a Siddal product, moved to his hometown club from Hull KR in 2018.
“I’m looking forward to getting back into into playing some good rugby with some old and new faces,” he said.
Coach Simon Grix is still waiting for the return of 22-year-old Wales international forward Sion Jones from a long-term knee injury.
The Shay team chief has told his players to learn the lessons from the Batley tie.
“The match review made for some difficult watching,” he said. “Our ball control let us down and we gifted them far too much possession. That made it difficult for us to do the things we wanted to and prevented us from taking the gas out of a good Batley side.
“It was the first competitive match in a while, and we were never going to be brilliant, but I expected better, and the players have been honest in their reaction.”
O’Carroll picks plenty of positives despite Thunder defeat
NEWCASTLE THUNDER coach Eamon O’Carroll says his side can take plenty of positives from their Challenge Cup first-round tie at Swinton as they prepare for the club’s first Championship game in twelve years.
Thunder, who host Widnes in their league opener on Sunday, went down 28-16 at Heywood Road, but gave the Lions a scare by fighting back from a 16-0 half-time deficit to be within six points of their hosts with six minutes still to go.
“We can take some confidence out of the tie, no doubt about that, and one thing that really pleased me was the response after half-time,” said O’Carroll, who was taking charge of Newcastle in a competitive match for the first time.
“We looked like a team and we looked like we could have gone on and possibly have won it.
“We lacked some composure with the ball in the first half, with a few errors in there which isn’t like us, and gave ourselves too much to do.
“There’s confidence though that there are some things that are fairly easy fixes. We defended pretty well through parts of the game, we created some really good opportunities, but it was just the execution off the back of those.”
Newcastle’s elevation to the second tier in place of Leigh, now in Super League, has led to a major recruitment drive to bolster the squad, with four players, the Chapelhow twins Ted and Jay, Jack Johnson and Sam Wilde, arriving from Sunday’s visitors.
There were 13 debutants at Swinton, and O’Carroll added: “I was pleased with them, but I’m not really surprised by that.
“The Chapelhow twins were outstanding when they came of the bench and did everything that I asked of them. They put in plenty of effort and got us going forward and did loads of good things off the ball.
“Jack Johnson and Cian Tyrer (from Wigan) returned the ball well, Sam Wilde had a really strong game and was solid every time he carried the ball and Nathan Wilde (Wigan) did really well doing the dirty work that sometimes goes unnoticed.”
Thunder’s last second-tier match was a 56-0 win at Doncaster in September 2009, when they were still known as Gateshead. Both those sides dropped to third tier.
Sheffield’s new recruit lives up to Aston’s expectations
SHEFFIELD EAGLES recruit Ryan Johnson can make a big contribution this season according to coach Mark Aston.
The 20-year-old outside back was snapped up after his release by Hull at the end of last season.
Johnson made his debut in the Eagles’ Challenge Cup first-round defeat by York and is in line for a Championship bow at home to Bradford on Sunday.
“I thought Ryan was great,” said Aston. “You have got to remember that this kid has only played six Reserve games for Hull so he’s not played at this intensity and level before.
“He should have come off the pitch with confidence. I told him before that I had seen enough of him in pre-season to know that he could handle it.
“He certainly showed that over the next couple of years, he will turn into a really strong player.”
Aston was also pleased to have been able to select captain and Matt James and centre James Glover after lengthy absences through leg injuries.
“It was great to see them back out there as they are proper leaders,” he said.
“It wasn’t the performance we were looking for, but I thought the scoreline flattered them a little bit as we gave them two or three soft tries.
“The effort and commitment was there from the guys after not playing for twelve months.
“There are plenty of positives but we have a few things to work on including our discipline in the opposition half and how we are turning the ball over.
“People will look at the scoreline, but they got a couple of tries from kicks and one from dummy-half too, which frustrates me.
“That is 18 points, so if you take that away, there’s nothing in it, but that’s the game – we can’t afford to knock off.
“We have a committed bunch and I have been highly delighted with them through pre-season.
“We got our backsides kicked, which is probably what we needed as we’ll get our heads down now ahead of the league season.”
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS players will be on “first-name terms” with Batley’s following Friday’s league opener, says Rovers coach James Webster.
It will be the third meeting of the sides in less than three weeks, all at the Millennium Stadium, following a pre-season match on March 13, which Featherstone won 36-16, and Saturday’s Challenge Cup second-round clash.
While Rovers beat visitors Bradford 41-16 in round one, Batley were 19-6 winners at Halifax, a performance which impressed Rovers’ Australian team chief.
“It was a great result for Batley,” he said. “We know each other pretty well, and I think we’ll be on first-name terms with everyone there after the league game.
“They (Batley) have recruited really well. They have got a good halfback in Tom Gilmore (ex-Halifax), two young former Hull centres (Kieran Buchanan and Jack Logan) and Jodie Broughton (ex-Salford, Huddersfield, Catalans and Halifax) on the wing.
“They have got a lot of grunt and determination in the middle. They will give us another good test.”
Webster was also impressed with Bradford, adding: “I thought they were really committed and made very few errors.
“That was in total contrast to us as we made it hard for ourselves. Once we learn to respect the ball a bit more we will be a lot better team.
“But it was our first competitive hit out compared to the warm-up matches (Featherstone also played Oldham), where we changed the team around, so it was a good experience for us.
“We threw the ball away numerous times in our sets but once we got into the grind, we knew we had a really good chance of winning the game.
“We had some individuals that were really good and came up with a number of plays and important tackles that really helped us.”
Former Super League forward Dale Ferguson is unlikely to feature on Friday after picking up a hamstring injury against Bradford.
OLDHAM captain Gareth Owen wants to be one of a string of local heroes this season.
For the experienced hooker is among six members of Matt Diskin’s squad born in the town.
The 28-year-old started his career at Salford, but after a loan spell with the Roughyeds in 2014, made a permanent move for the following season.
The squad already included prop Phil Joy, now 29, and in 2018, former Warrington and Rochdale secondrow Danny Bridge, now 28, came on board.
This closed-season, coach Matt Diskin has brought in 22-year-old halfback James Barran from Wigan, 23-year-old outside back Joe Hartley from Oldham St Anne’s and 19-year-old secondrow Matthew Fletcher, a Waterhead product who has been playing in Australia, for Brisbane sides Valleys Diehards and Norths Devils.
“I know I’m proud to play for my hometown club, and I think the other Oldham lads are as well,” said Owen.
“James Barran has been at Wigan, but I know it means a lot to him to be here now, and we all want to do everything we can to establish the club at this level.”
Oldham start their Championship campaign against Swinton at Bower Fold on Friday, having just faced the Lions in the second round of the Challenge Cup.
Dec Gregory, who has joined after leaving Castleford, missed the trip to Heywood Road due to a concussion suffered during the first-round win over Barrow at Bower Fold.
With Matty Wilkinson sidelined by a broken leg, that left Owen as the only experienced hooker in the squad.
Diskin hopes Gregory will be given the all clear to get back into action early this week.
YORK CITY KNIGHTS high-profile pack addition Adam Cuthbertson has his sights set on a first Championship appearance after returning to full training following his shoulder injury.
It’s the first time the seasoned Australian has played outside Super League since arriving in the UK to join Leeds for the 2015 campaign.
The former Manly, Cronulla, St George Illawarra and Newcastle Knights man played in 130 top-flight games, scoring 30 tries, over his six seasons with the Rhinos, with whom he won the Grand Final and Challenge Cup twice apiece.
The 36-year-old has taken five months to recover, explaining to The Press newspaper: “I fractured my shoulder and there was quite a bit of bruising in and around the nerves, so that’s where the healing needed to be done.
“Five months isn’t a normal time period to come back from an injury like this, it’s usually more like three, but it was something the club were willing to do because the last thing we wanted was for me to come back too early.
“I’ve had my first real contact sessions in a long time, and it’s been good to get in the thick of it with the lads.
“It was great to get the all-clear from the specialist and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.”
James Ford’s side open their league campaign on Saturday, when they face Toulouse in the first competitive Rugby League match at the LNER Community Stadium.
BATLEY BULLDOGS boss Craig Lingard says it was fitting that hooker Alistair Leak wore the armband on his 150th appearance for the club.
The 28-year-old, who joined the Bulldogs in 2013, reached the milestone in the eye-catching Challenge Cup first-round win at Halifax.
Leeds Metropolitan (now Beckett) University sports business management graduate Leak, originally from Cumbria and a former Egremont player, led the team in the absence of James Brown, and Lingard said: “I know what an honour he considered that to be.
“He’s a great player and a great character, and to reach 150 games is a real attainment and one he should be proud of.
“He has a great engine – he can do long minutes if required – and hopefully he’ll be a big performer for us this year.”
Batley begin their league campaign at Featherstone on Friday having also visited Rovers in the second round of the Challenge Cup and played them at the Millennium Stadium in pre-season.
LONDON BRONCOS newly-recruited prop Romain Navarrete wants to carry on scoring after marking his debut with a try in the Challenge Cup first-round home win over Keighley.
It was a first touchdown for the 26-year-old France international since he came to the UK to play for Hemel Stags in 2014.
In between leaving Hemel and signing for the Broncos, Navarrete played 89 times for Catalans, Wigan, Wakefield and Swinton – without crossing the whitewash.
“People have laughed a bit because I played in Super League for so long without scoring but I am glad to have sorted that out already and to have got my first points for the team and hopefully not the last,” said the 2018 Grand Final winner (with Wigan).
Danny Ward’s side open their league campaign at Halifax on Friday, and Navarrete reckons the Challenge Cup has provided useful preparation.
He added: “I played a bit in 2020 for Wakefield (on loan from Wigan) of course, but some of the lads had not had a game for a year.
“We have not had any warm-up matches, and it was good for everyone to get out and do what we like to do.”
WHITEHAVEN have signed former Leigh forward Andy Thornley for a second time.
The 32-year-old backrower who came through the development ranks at Wigan, played for Haven from 2010-11 and has also been at Swinton, can boast more than 200 career appearances.
Haven coach Gary Charlton said: “We are pleased to have him on board.
“Andy is a Championship-standard player with plenty of experience. We feel he will keep up the competition for places in the backrow.”
Thornley’s arrival follows that of Scotland international halfback, hooker or fullback Oscar Thomas on a month’s trial.
Callum Phillips’ dismissal in the Challenge Cup first-round tie against Dewsbury has been referred to the RFL Tribunal and will be heard this week.
Meanwhile, Charlton believes his side’s Challenge Cup second-round tie at Widnes provided a key opportunity to further sharpen up for Saturday’s league opener at Dewsbury.
The Cumbrians booked their berth by beating the Rams 23-16 at the Recreation Ground.
Haven had only one pre-season game, away to Newcastle, and Charlton said: “I’ve thought all along we could do with three games before the start of the league, so getting to the second round of the Challenge Cup has provided that.
“It maximises opportunities for players to show they are worth a place in the side.”
SWINTON LIONS Foundation are ready to step up their community work.
Staff have taken delivery of junior training equipment supplied by the ‘Created by the Rugby League World Cup’ legacy programme.
Lions’ Foundation director Damian Ridpath said: “As Covid restrictions are steadily eased, we will be rolling out a full programme of development work across communities of Greater Manchester throughout 2021 and beyond.
“This week our Lionesses, formed successfully despite the national pandemic, will meet in person for the first time after months of online training and meetings.
“The first on-field training session will take place at the AJ Bell Stadium, meaning they will be utilising the same training venue as the Lions, with access to the bespoke club gym which is on site.
“Throughout the coming months we will also be delivering our ‘Jose Kenga Diversity and Inclusion’ programme while supporting the Rugby League ‘Tackle It’ programme.
“Furthermore, we will be creating three new junior teams within the Borough of Trafford by early summer.”
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.