Denis Betts leaves Widnes after eight successive Super League defeats ending one of the longest serving tenures in rugby league.
Betts was appointed at the end of the 2010 season and guided Widnes to a fifth place finish in the Championship in his first season, the on-pitch performance taking second fiddle to the licensing announcement in March of that year that saw Widnes granted a franchise to join Super League in 2012.
Their debut season back in the top flight, their first since a four year stint was ended with relegation from 11th spot in 2005, resulted in them finishing dead last, winning six games and shipping more than 1000 points in the process.
There were plenty questioning the licensing process during that season, but gradually year on year, Betts led Widnes to improved finishes including their only ever Super League play-off finish back in 2014, when they finished eighth and narrowly lost to eventual Grand Finalists Warrington at the first hurdle.
He bettered that in 2016 when after a blistering start to the season, where the Vikings sat top of the table after six wins in seven games, Widnes eventually finished seventh to secure a place in the Super 8s.
But since that blistering start in 2016, Widnes have won just 12 of their last 54 regular season Super League matches, though did manage to successfully navigate The Qualifiers last season, including a decisive victory away at Catalans, the first time they had ever won in Perpignan.
Betts has cut a frustrated figure in recent weeks and his post-match comments in their most recent defeats has seen criticism of players as a group, individuals, fans and the coaching staff.
The Wigan legend has had to play the cards dealt to him, which has meant spending well below the salary cap and losing his captain and linchpin, Kevin Brown, at the end of 2016 and seeing his eventual replacement, Rangi Chase, handed a drugs ban having spent about a quarter of the time at the club as it took to replace Brown in the first place.
One thing you couldn’t accuse Betts teams of was not working hard, their issue has been perhaps the lack of quality in depth. This season has personified the reign in parts too – putting in solid performances in defeat to Wigan, St Helens and Leeds, but then floundering embarrassingly in crucial defeats to Huddersfield and Wakefield. Betts was still carrying 11 of the players that were part of his squad that finished bottom of Super League in 2012.
Questions remain over the impact the iPitch has on not only reducing injuries, but recruiting players. Finances play their part too, Betts was only able to sign four players – one of which has already been released without appearing in a Super League game – in the off-season having lost eight, including one who has gone straight in to a starting position at an NRL club.
Betts will be linked with the Wigan job, of course coming vacant at the end of the year when Shaun Wane leaves, and though his reputation has taken a knock with this news and the end of his role at England earlier in the year, he probably has enough sympathy towards the environment he has been working in to earn another chance elsewhere. We’ll never know how far Betts may have taken Widnes had he been given the full salary cap to spend.
The problems at Widnes would appear to be deeper than the head coach – there was vocal chanting in opposition of chief executive James Rule, rather than Betts, at the recent home defeat to Wakefield – but after almost eight years, it was probably time for a change.
Francis Cummins, perhaps in the right place at the right time having only joined the club as an assistant over the off season, faces a real baptism of fire in the upcoming weeks with five successive away games to try and end this losing run, though he will be boosted by the expected return of several first teamers, including stand-out signing Krisnan Inu.
There will also be a hope that a change in personnel at the top will bring back fans who have been dropping off at an alarming rate. Ahead of this season, the club revealed that 600 season ticket holders (roughly 20% of the 2017 total) had opted not to renew for 2018.
The Vikings recorded their lowest ever Super League home crowd against Wakefield (3,681), the third time they have set a new low this season having never had a sub-4000 crowd in their previous 10 seasons in the competition.
But with those numbers, and a lack of commercial support and investment, their ability to spend the full salary cap and improve their squad to move away from the form they have shown in the last two years are hindered.
It’s ironic that Widnes, who along with Catalans were the only real beneficiaries of the licensing system, are probably one of the clubs most at risk of rugby league’s continuing changes and hunger for growth. As a small club from a small town and surrounded by much bigger and more successful (certainly in recent memory) clubs, their place at the top table may not be available for too long, particularly with vultures from Canada and France swirling menacingly, knowing that they can pounce on the pitch within the next three months.
Improvements on the pitch are needed from Widnes, who can at least boast decent facilities and a youth system that is now starting to produce and give opportunities to Super League standard players, like Danny Walker, Jordan Johnstone and Matt Whitley, on a regular basis.
Their future in Super League, at least for now, remains in their hands.