One of the biggest rugby league clubs in the West Country have been dealt a blow by missing out on the start to their first season at Conference level, writes Andrew Clayton.
Devon Sharks, based in Bovey Tracey, were accepted into the West Division of the Southern Conference earlier this year, the highest step of amateur rugby league in the region.
After humble beginnings in 2006, the club has grown in stature to become the most well-known in the West, finishing top of the 2019 South West league after defeating Tarka Storm in the final.
However, the outbreak of coronavirus (Covid-19) has brought the sport to a halt. Last weekend, Sharks were due to face Torfaen Tigers in their first match, before a fixture with Swindon St George yesterday.
Despite all their hard work in the off-season, club chairman and co-founder, Lee Kirkman, tells The Independent that he cannot see when, or even if, his teams will be able to play this year.
“At the moment, I’m not sure what is going to happen,” he said. “Sharks may possibly get some games toward the end of the season, but I’m just surmising if everything goes well.
“Our development side, as it were, Exeter Ravens, are very unlikely to start, in my opinion, as it’s a short season and I just can’t see them getting any game time this year. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“We had sponsors lined up, plus a lot of good quality talent coming across from a variety of areas. We had a good side going forward, so hopefully whenever we can start again, we can get them on the field, whether that’s this season or the next.”
Off the pitch, the club has grand plans in the pipeline to move to Exeter, forming a partnership with rugby union side Exeter Saracens. Kirkman explains that idea is still moving forward, even if it has been somewhat postponed by the pandemic.
“We were going across to play at Sarries, because they want to create a rugby hub in the city. The development side was going to play out of there and then it just seemed logical to take Sharks there, because everything would have been on-site.
“Where we are in Bovey Tracey, using the football club, it was always a bit of an issue if the football team were at home. We’ll still be going down to Sarries, we just don’t know when.”
That plan simply epitomises the sort of response Sharks have received since their founding. Located far away from the spiritual home of rugby league in the North, instead camped in a region famed for its rugby union success, Kirkman says the support has been superb from day one.
He added: “It’s nice to be expanding the game away from the heartlands of rugby league. We’re bringing it to a relatively new audience, so to speak, and we’ve got a large area to build from.
“When we started, we were built up from rugby union players and we still have a lot of rugby union players now. But, we’ve developed a core of just pure league players.
“The rugby union clubs, on the whole, have been very supportive of us – Torquay, Paignton, Newton Abbot, Brixham, Teignmouth, even Totnes; back in the early days, we had a lot of players from them.
“We can’t fault the support we’ve had from these clubs and it goes to show that we can work together.”