Championship Focus: Newcastle Thunder hit setback in their progression

And then there were five…

After John Kear and Simon Finnigan, who parted company with Bradford Bulls and Widnes Vikings respectively on April 26, Jermaine Coleman, who left London Broncos on May 24, and Lee Greenwood, who departed Dewsbury Rams on June 1, came Eamon O’Carroll, whose resignation as coach of Newcastle Thunder was announced a week ago.

According to Newcastle, former Wigan, Hull, Widnes and Ireland prop O’Carroll, who succeeded Finnigan at Kingston Park in November 2020, is set to take up a new role in Super League, having had two years as assistant coach of Catalans Dragons before his move to the North-East on a two-year deal, shortly before Thunder were elevated from League One to the Championship via a bidding process.

It means there has been a change at five of the clubs who were in the bottom eight of the second tier going into round 16 of 27 over the weekend that has just gone.

Newcastle had their hugely-experienced director of rugby Denis Betts, who had a year as interim coach of Wigan and seven-and-a-half in charge of Widnes, and assistant coach Michael Heap, who is well versed in both the club and Rugby League in the North-East, at the helm for their home game against basement side Workington Town.

Former Wigan and Great Britain second rower Betts arrived at Kingston Park back in March 2019 with the long-term objective of establishing Thunder in Super League, and soon after his arrival, brought in Finnigan, who had played under him at Widnes, to succeed Jason Payne, who had been axed in February of that year.

Former Toronto Wolfpack assistant coach Finnigan took Newcastle to the 2019 promotion play-off final, in which they were beaten 18-14 at Oldham, and sealed wins in all five of the matches which were played before the pandemic put an end to the 2020 season at second and third-tier level.

After Finnigan’s switch to Widnes, Betts turned to another of his old Vikings players in O’Carroll, who became his assistant there after injury put an end to his playing career in 2017.

It was a busy, eventful and challenging first head coaching role for the Oldham-born 34-year-old, who consolidated Championship status with an eleventh-placed finish thanks to seven wins out of 20 games last year before he and Betts oversaw the switch to completely full-time status over the close-season.

That’s clearly a big plus in the long term for the club, who were formed as Gateshead Thunder in 1999 before being taken over by rugby union club Newcastle Falcons and crossing the Tyne in 2015.

But there have been teething problems, with some players departing after struggling to adapt to the new systems and surroundings.

Newcastle went into the Workington clash tenth in the table with five wins from 15 (after the same number of games last year, they had a point more).

“Eamon joined us at an exciting time for the club as we prepared for a return to the Championship (Gateshead dropped to the third tier in 2009), and he has been a driving force in making sure we have progressed during his time with us,” said Betts, who is 51.

“He has created a positive training environment where players and staff are able to thrive and feel welcome and has moved the club forward from when he joined us.

“I am of course disappointed he has decided to leave but understand the reasons and wish him nothing but the very best for the future.”

Club Chairman Keith Christie added: “I’d like to thank Eamon for his efforts with us over the last 18 months. He is a good person, and I am genuinely sad to see him leave.

“He has worked tirelessly towards the betterment of the club and along with Denis has laid some firm foundations that we will now build on going forward.”

O’Carroll commented: “I think we have built something special, and the exciting thing is that the club is looking to add quality people as well.

“But I’m looking forward to taking a step back now and watching as a fan and seeing the club grow and develop, because I know it will.”

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