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Former assistant coach Simon Finnigan, left, with ball, looks on as Toronto Wolfpack players run through a drill in 2017. (File Photo).The Canadian Press

Assistant coach Simon Finnigan has left the Toronto Wolfpack to become head coach of the Newcastle Thunder.

The former Irish international was part of the transatlantic rugby league team from Day 1, serving as an assistant first to Paul Rowley and then Brian McDermott.

“Simon was involved from the outset with the Wolfpack and was deeply involved in the recruitment and training of players ahead of a hugely successful inaugural season,” Brian Noble, Toronto’s director of rugby, said in a statement Sunday. “We are all excited for him to have this opportunity to take on his first role as a head coach.”

Newcastle (2-3-0) currently stands fifth in the third-tier Betfred League 1. Toronto (7-1-0) tops the second-tier Betfred Championship.

Newcastle relieved Jason Payne of head coaching duties two games into the 2019 campaign after losses to Doncaster and Coventry Bears. Michael Heap has been interim coach of the team that is celebrating its 20th season.

The 37-year-old Finnigan thanked McDermott and Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle for releasing him from his contract to take the head coaching role.

“Being part of the Wolfpack family from the very beginning has been a privilege and honour for me and I’m very grateful for everything the club has done for me.” he said. “I would also like to thank the players and staff who I have worked with along the way they are a great group of people and I truly hope they go on to achieve the goal they’ve set out to do.”

Finnigan helped the club win promotion to the Betfred Championship in its inaugural 2017 season by winning the League 1 title. Toronto came within three points of securing promotion to the Super League last year, losing 4-2 to the London Broncos in the “Million Pound Game.”

Born in the U.K., Finnigan was raised in Australia where he played all of his junior rugby league before returning to England to make his debut with Widnes Vikings in 2003.

He went on to make more than 230 first-team appearances with Widnes, Salford City Reds, Bradford Bulls, Huddersfield Giants and Leigh Centurions before retiring in 2014.

Finnigan’s appointment at Newcastle follows Denis Betts, former Widnes coach, being named director of rugby earlier in March.

“He has a great deal of experience in both the Championship and League 1 and has earned a lot of credibility in his time with Toronto, working with a lot of good players in that time,” Betts said. “He has played a leading role in that setup and wants to step up to become a head coach and that is an opportunity we can give him in an environment with ambitions that match his own.”

Finnigan’s first game in charge of Newcastle will be next Sunday against visiting Oldham. The Thunder lost 21-20 to Workington Town in the fourth round of the Coral Challenge Cup on Sunday.

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