What are we About?
Devon Sharks were born out of a Rugby Football League initiative to expand to lands further a field than it’s traditional Northern heartlands, and to open the game up to a whole new audience. Towards the end of 2005 a letter arrived on the doorstep of Newton Abbot RUFC offering them the chance to set up a Rugby League team, with a view to them then entering into the Summer Conference. Newton Abbot asked around it’s committee and coaching team to see if anybody would be interested in taking the task on, fortunately for Sharks, Steve Hart, the under 10s coach and Darren West, treasurer, were inspired and took on the challenge. Driven by Darren‘s knowledge and Steve‘s passion and experience, the Sharks were born.
The official date on which the Sharks were born is 3rd May 2006 when Steve and Darren set up the clubs first ever training session at Rackerhayes, Newton Abbots home ground. The first player to turn up was Lee Kirkman, an ex-league player, who had had a trial with professional outfit Swinton Lions back in 1992. He went on to play a season with Huddersfield Giants Academy a couple of years later at their then home ground, Fartown. Lee had heard about the League side, whilst watching his local Union side, Torquay Athletic playing in an away fixture at Newton Abbot. Lee had arrived early to training and had introduced himself to Steve, who was busy setting up the nights forthcoming training session. Steve is also an ex-league player and he couldn’t wait to get the session started. Steve was confident that a great number of players were going to show up. Steve Baker, a Newton Colts player turned up it started to look promising, unfortunately that evening, Bakes proved to be the last player to appear, after a brief chat and a promise to try again next week, the small band of Sharks departed.
After that first session that band of men would have been wise to knock it on the head, walk away, and call it a day. They didn‘t!
At the next training session, just one week later, Steve’s hard work recruiting seemed to have paid off when five more lads turned up from Totnes RUFC. This combined with Kirkman and Baker, took the Sharks roster of players to seven. Granted this wasn’t quite enough to win Super League, but from small acorns, great oaks grow.
Over the weeks that followed, players came and went, some took to the game, some didn’t but at least the club was starting to develop. In those early days three players came along who would go on to play a big part in the future of Sharks, in fact one of them would go on to be as important to the club as its founders. Those players were first captain Stuart Kingsley, Brother Wayne Kingsley and future commercial manager, Barry Whittle.
As the summer went on and with the first game fast approaching, it was time for the coaching staff to concentrate on turning the predominately union players into a league
state of mind, focusing on fitness, speed and strength. They had to get the lads used to an entirely different game plan. In union the object of the game is to gain possession of the field with a series of tactical kicks into the opposition’s territory, league however, is about carrying the ball into the opposition territory, through a series of skilled, slick and tactical moves. The union players loved the freedom it gave them to express themselves in a fast flowing game.
The debut competitive game was getting closer, and despite the best efforts of Steve Hart to bring players in, the Sharks still didn’t quite have enough players for a full thirteen. Although this was quite worrying and disheartening at times, nobody would let all the effort that had already gone into the venture go to waste. Some ninety years previous, a then called Northern Union (rugby league) club, set up in Newton Abbot and only managed to last for one game. The Great Whites did not want to follow suit.
24th June 2006, game day. Devon Sharks, with just eleven players, went forward to play fellow new club, East Devon Eagles, at the Imperial Grounds in Exmouth. The game itself was to make rugby league history as it was the first game ever to be played between two Devon Clubs outside of Plymouth. Unfortunately, with Eagles superior player numbers, (they had thirteen as well as seven substitutes) the game ended with a final scoreline of 0-68, this was all that could be expected what with the Sharks visibly wilting in the unusually hot June heat. It also didn’t help when Chris Rudd, the South African union player picked up a career finishing injury after just ten minutes of the game. Sharks were told days later that the game had been classified as the Devon Cup Final by the Devon County Rugby League, if the Sharks committee had known this in advance; it could have been used as an advertising tool to bring in more players. All sportsmen love competitive competition, the Sharks was robbed of the opportunity to take advantage of that.
The first ever Sharks team were: Ben Parrott, Chris Rudd, Stuart Kingsley, Wayne Kingsley, Barry Whittle, Lee Kirkman, Lee McNultey, Andy Buchannan, Declan Hammond, Steve Baker and a lad who wants shall remain anonymous, because at the time he had a professional union contract with Exeter Chiefs.
The following Tuesday, another game had been arranged against established club, Somerset Vikings, the game was also to be away, this time at Hyde Park in Taunton. The unperturbed Sharks, were determined not to fold after just one game like their predecessors all those years ago. With hope of extra players being drafted in by captain Stuart Kingsley, the Sharks arranged to meet at the ground. Ten of the team arrived at Taunton, with the Kingsley brothers were on their way with two extra players. The signs were looking good for Sharks as they now had a full thirteen and one substitute. All the lads were keen to get the game on and started to throw the ball around, putting on a few of the moves that Steve Hart had gone through at training. There were several of Taunton’s youth players wandering past onto an adjacent pitch. It was then that the Vikings groundsman informed the Sharks that Somerset had cancelled the game, as they wanted to save the players for their coming league game at the weekend.
Now to say the Sharks players were fed up and angry is probably one of the biggest understatements of all time. When a team is trying to develop as the Sharks were, you need to be playing games regularly in order to attract players. All the lads who turned up or were on there way that evening, had either finished work early or taken the day off. To turn up at a ground many miles from home and to be told the game is off one hour before kick off is nothing short of a disgrace.
At the next training session the following week, it became clear that the postponement had affected the club in a big way as only seven players turned up to the session. Word had got round that it was a waste of time turning up as Sharks couldn’t promise you a game, After that, the lads decided to knock the season on the head and everyone, apart from Steve Hart, Darren West, Barry Whittle and Lee Kirkman left. The remaining lads decided to have a little time off and think over whether it was worth trying again in 2007. Steve and Lee went to a meeting of clubs at Exmouth to see if it would be possible for a South West Conference to take off, despite assurances from Niel Wood of the RFL, Steve and Lee still weren’t sure if it could get off the ground.
In late August Darren, Steve, Barry, Lee and new committee member Christine Fairchild met up at the Hare and Hounds in Kingskerswell to see if it there was an inkling of hope in carrying on the following year. At that meeting it was decided that the Sharks were worth saving, so with renewed vigor the Great Whites lived to fight for the time being at the very least. The next meeting was arranged for the following month at a different venue, and the Queens Hotel in Newton Abbot was the venue of choice. As had been the luck of Sharks in those formative years, nothing was going to run smooth for the club, and at the next meeting Lee and Chris were greeted by Darren who announced that founder, Steve Hart, had departed the Rackerhayes club, as he had been forced to move back to Yorkshire due to work commitments. More bad news followed when Barry Whittle seemed to have vanished into thin air.
It was decided at the September meeting that the three remaining committee would not meet again until November, missing the October meeting so they could all concentrate on getting some much needed equipment together for the following season. It was fortunate that new Director of Rugby, Lee Kirkman had many rugby league contacts in the North, including his father Vinny who just happened to be the kitman for six times rugby league champions, Swinton Lions. This vital link was to prove to be a major part in the future of Devon Sharks, there is no doubt that without the Lions, Devon Sharks would have not made it to the New Year. It can never be underestimated what Vinny Kirkman and Swinton did at that time.
At the November meeting, Lee and Chris had an important announcement, Swinton had promised to donate one of their old kits to the Sharks, which although well used was still in a good condition. The shirt was one they picked up cheap from the manufacturers, in fact it was an Oldham shirt that had the wrong collar on it so it wasn’t any use to them. Swinton ended up buying it for their Academy side who played in it for one season before passing it on to another Swinton run team, summer conference club Bolton le Moors. That shirt was Royal Blue and White Hoops, coincidently Royal Blue has been the Lions colours since 1866, over 140 years before the Sharks came to be. Added to the Shirts, Swinton also promised to provide a number of match and training balls, all of this Lee and Chris would pick up in January. This proved to be a major point in the Sharks turnaround and for that the Lions deserve to take a lot of credit. If you ever feel at a loose end, then I recommend you get yourself a copy of ‘The Lions Of Swinton’ a complete history of the Lions and an inspiration for these writings.
So now the club were starting to get things into place as far as equipment was concerned. With the Christmas holidays on the way it was decided to meet again in January. This would give the current committee of Darren, Chris and Lee, much needed time to ‘relax’. It had been hard work running the club and they all had full time jobs to fit around Sharks. It also can not be forgotten, the part these three pioneers played in the developement of Rugby League in South Devon.
Around this time , Kirkman recieved an e-mail from a young lad in Yorkshire who had played for both Keighley Cougarrs and Bradford Bulls academy sides. He was moving to Paignton with his parents, and despite having a career threatening back injury he would be keen to help out in any way he could. His name was James Sharples and he went on to join the coaching staff.
Christmas came and went and all the committee reconvened, with the addition of Sharples to help boost the committees number to a grand total of four. Also the missing Barry Whittle arrived back on the scene and Sharks suddenly had five people who were now fighting the Great Whites cause.
The next task was to try and pull some players in, it was never going to be an easy job, especially after the difficulties of the previous summer, but as was the determination of the committee, they pushed an advertising campaign.
Director of Rugby, Lee Kirkman phoned up all the previous seasons players and assured them that they would be in the new South West Conference, therefore the games would be guaranteed. Kirkman had always been full of optimism, some of it blind, but he believed that if the players come, then they would love the game. How could they not? Rugby League is the greatest game in the World.
All the previous seasons’ players, with the exception of the injured Chris Rudd and our union professional committed to the club for the 2007 season. Of course this wouldn’t be enough, but it was still a few months to the season and Kirkman didn’t envisage any problems in recruitment. February came, as did March and the committee decided to concentrate on sponsorship in those months. Sharks really did hit a brick wall in this department, although the committee knew what they had to sell, it would appear that local businesses could not see the product on offer. It really did appear that the previous seasons debacles had played a big factor in the ability of Sharks to sell their name.
At the end of March, Sharks held a signing session at Rackerhayes, It was hoped that the interest that had been shown over the last couple of months would come to fruition, since the clubs press campaign many players had said they would come over. The 2006 Captain Stuart Kingsley took on the Head Coaches role, with him he fetched two players from Paignton RUFC, Adam Hocutt and Jarrett Harris. Kirkman, Whittle, Baker and Hammond re-signed. James Sharples signed in the hope that his back problems would clear up, as did a young Zimbabwean, Kevin Smith. Several others signed up and the player numbers were steadily climbing.
At the April meeting Sharks were still struggling to raise any sponsorship, but this had to be put on the back burner, as the South West 9s tournament was fast approaching. Although they still didn’t have enough players for a full thirteen, they had a nines team. Training resumed and this was when yet another pivotal moment happened for Sharks, at the first session of 2007 a player appeared who would not only become one of the main lynchpins of the team, but would go on to prove to be one of the most vital cogs in the machine. That player was Phillip Maddick, he was to become probably the most influential signing in the clubs short but distinguished history.
On the day of the 9s tournament, Sharks were once again plagued by all the problems that they suffered with the year before. Many of the players who had committed to the cause failed to materialise, in fact they were never to be seen again. Phil had already said he wouldn’t be able to make it, so come the tournament Sharks arrived at Taunton with only nine players. That evening another player who was to become pivotal to the Sharks cause was there just to watch the tournament, that player, one Nev Dellasandro, only played that night to make up the numbers, but his future help bringing players in was to prove invaluable, at forty one years of age, his knowledge, and his willingness to step in when required really helped the Sharks survive that first competitive season.
Anyway, as you can imagine the Sharks were always going to be up against it that night, a 14-0 loss against Somerset Vikings, and a 22-0 loss against tournament favorites Plymouth Titans, meant that a Plate Final against another new side Exeter Centurions, was to be contested, After totally dominating the game the Sharks lost the game 14-10 after a controversial match altering decision by the referee. To be fair to the ref, he did admit to making a mistake after the game. The defeat was another kick in the teeth to the recruitment process, as a win would have given some leverage in the attempts at pulling in players.
The squad that night was: Daniel Harris, Kevin Smith, Steve Baker, Stu Collier, Nev Dellasandro, Stuart Kingsley, Barry Whittle, Steve Rushden, Lee Kirkman.