Shaw Cross Sharks approach the new season with a new head coach after the appointment of Mark Barlow.
Barlow has taken on the role alongside his playing duties at Keighley Cougars, where the 35-year-old recently signed for the 2019 season.
‘Sparky’ is entering his 20th professional season since making his debut for Wakefield Trinity at 16, and has gone on to feature for Dewsbury Rams (twice), Halifax, York, Batley Bulldogs, Gloucestershire All Golds, Oxford and Hemel Stags.
The veteran half-back has now taken on the top coaching role at Shaw Cross, as the club look ahead to the upcoming NCL Division Two campaign.
Barlow, a former Shaw Cross junior, described how and why he has made a return to the club.
“I did play a couple of seasons in the junior section for Shaw Cross, from the under 10s up to under 12s, and then I did make an appearance in the first team as well 14 years ago, when I left Dewsbury Rams.
“I was in between pre-season and signing for another club. The club approached me and said ‘do you fancy having a game?’ I think we played Wigan St Patrick’s that day at home.
“So I played for the first team in that one game and then returned back to pro ranks, but I’ve obviously got that link with Shaw Cross and that’s a reason why I’ve re-joined.
“I was approached by the club, saying that there’s a head coach role available. I didn’t jump in straight away. I knew I was talking to Keighley and I didn’t know if there was going to be a Keighley club, so I didn’t want to commit.
“So I watched them against Celtic, I saw them in the Challenge Cup, and I was really inspired by the performances. They were a young team. Obviously they had a couple of old heads, and all the others were just young lads who wanted to have a go.
“They know rugby league. It just inspired me. I knew they just needed a little bit of direction, just someone to lead them a little bit, and that’s what made me think I can do a job here.”
Barlow says that he has the help of a good team around him to help manage the workload of his commitments with Keighley, including two new assistants.
“If it wasn’t for Keighley I wouldn’t have been able to do it, but they let me be flexible with training, Shaw Cross are going to let me be flexible with them, and it just kind of fits. Both sets of clubs have agreed to it,” he said.
“I’ve got a good coaching set-up below me as well. There’s me, Michael Wainwright who’s played a lot of Super League games, who I played with at Dewsbury Rams, and Martin Woodhead who’s played at Dewsbury Rams in the professional ranks.
“We’ve obviously got Danny Flowers underneath as well who is going to be playing in the second team. So we’ve set up a good coaching set-up to help the first team, 18s and second team.
“It’s not just me, without them it wouldn’t be possible. I thought if I can be head coach and have some good assistants underneath me and just build that positivity around the club, that can only be a good thing.”
The new boss admits that the timing of the changes, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new season, is not ideal, but is confident that things will fall into place with everyone pulling together.
“It’s definitely not ideal,” he said. “I’m still getting to know the lads at this stage. Obviously at this stage of the season you’d have done a bit of strength work, stamina, and I’d have known the players better.
“Pre-season is about getting combinations with your half-backs, your forwards, your hookers, and I haven’t had that opportunity, so it’s going to take one or two games for me to work that out and the players know that.
“The one thing we do have at the club is everybody willing to turn up at training on a Tuesday and Thursday. Everyone wants to push in the same direction, everyone wants to play for Shaw Cross, and that can only be a good thing.
“The lads want to train, they want to turn up. Believe it or not, even though we haven’t had a good pre-season, it’s been short and we’ve had hiccups, tonight at training we’ve had so many that there’ll be lads missing out on Saturday, so there’s competition for places.
“We’ve got a couple of lads who are at Featherstone who can come in if needed, so we have got options. The only place that I would say we’re a bit light is in the forwards; we’ve got a couple of lads out injured.”
Barlow has confidence that, despite last season’s relegation, the open age squad and the club as a whole has a lot of talent to offer.
“There are players coming through at 14s, 15s, 16s, right up into the first team. It’s a really good squad,” he said.
“There are a couple of old heads and then you’ve got a really young squad. They beat a good Celtic team and they pushed Haydock in the Challenge Cup. It was only at the end that they actually lost and we had a couple of old heads who weren’t playing.
“So there is definitely enough there to build on to have a good season in this division.”
Barlow begins his tenure this Saturday when the Sharks host Clock Face Miners at Shark Park (kick-off 2.30pm) in the first game of the new season.
Updated 17:21 - 27 Feb 2019 by Stephen Ibbetson