Widnes coach John Kear on their key to success in 2023
Since their relegation from Super League at the end of 2018, Widnes are yet to make the Championship play-offs.
A turbulent 2019, that saw the club almost go out of business, resulted in a points deduction for their period of administration, and then the COVID pandemic wiped out the 2020 season.
Now on to their fourth coach since relegation, the Vikings now look best placed to make the top six under John Kear.
Competition sponsors Betfred have them as seventh favourites in the Championship, but they are likely to be in a clutch of eight or nine clubs battling for places 3rd to 6th.
Squad depth strengthening
Despite the loss of veterans Matty Smith and Steve Tyrer through retirement, they have brought back half-back Tom Gilmore, shortlisted for Championship Player of the Year during his time at Batley.
They also have much greater depth across the squad than they have had in recent seasons, so much so that they weren’t resistant to allowing former Salford prop Josh Johnson depart for Bradford.
Their depth will, however, be tested from round one with their Players’ Player of the Year Owen Farnworth missing for the trip to York having picked up a shoulder injury in the 16-12 friendly defeat to St Helens.
New signings Max Roberts, who Kear has praised in pre-season, and Will Evans are also missing due to knocks picked up in the past month, while stand off Danny Craven is yet to feature due to a hamstring strain.
John Kear said: “A big change for us now is the competition for places. One area that we identified last season was that it was too easy to retain your place in the team, because the squad was too thin.
“We now have players pushing for places and when you’re in the team, you can’t rest on your laurels as you know there’s someone on the sidelines ready to take your place.
“Once you get competition for places, you get high standards in practice and once you get high standards in practice and people attentive in team meetings, you get improvements on the field of play and that’s we’re hoping happens during the course of the season.
“There really has been a sense of desire to put their best foot forward and claim a starting shirt for York.
“Even when we rotated players, you didn’t sense that the quality dropped off. It’s made me very happy and confident going forward.”
Competition for places
Captain Jack Owens has looked in good nick in pre-season, though Matt Fleming picked up man of the match against Rochdale slotting in at full-back.
On the wings, Ryan Millar and Kieran Dixon have stiff competition from Ryan Ince and Brad Holroyd, while Joe Edge at centre will not prove easy to displace when Evans and Roberts return from injury.
Hooker has been a problem area for the Vikings in recent seasons, with Matty Fozard virtually forced to play 80 minutes every week last season, and he has now been joined by Jordan Johnstone from Hull.
In the pack, ex-Swinton forward Lewis Hatton has impressed Kear with his application in pre-season and he and the likes of Shane Grady, Callum Field, Olly Davies and Ant Walker are outside the first 15 squad numbers.
A comfortable win over Rochdale was followed by a strong second half performance in a win at Oldham, though the display against Super League champions St Helens last weekend will have encouraged Kear.
It wasn’t quite a full strength Saints team for Mark Percival’s testimonial, but only Jumah Sambou and Tee Ritson were not regulars around their usual 19-man squad.
They held Saints to 12-0 at half time, and managed to win the second half as Paul Wellens drafted in more youngsters to test them out after the break.
John Kear added: “It was a quality team that St Helens turned out, and I thought we showed great resilience.
“I’ve got to get my thinking cap on, weigh up all the pros and cons and I’ve got to attempt to come up with the best 17.
“It won’t be easy, but I’d sooner have that headache than thinking ‘woah, they’re totally out of form and individuals haven’t put their hand up’.
“I like where we’re at and the headaches that I’ve got.”
READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the 2023 Championship season