When Harold Box left Featherstone Rovers for Wakefield in the summer of 1980 after seven seasons as first choice full-back, there were a number of contenders waiting to take his place.
1982 Nigel Barker.
Unusually though, the three main candidates were not fresh-faced youngsters, but rather they were already quite experienced players. The ‘A’ team full-back was Graeme Robinson, who had been on the club’s books for four years and had been playing very well for the reserves. However, he soon left for new club Carlisle. John Marsden actually signed for Rovers back in 1971 and made his debut in 1974. He had played some first team games on the wing over the years, and was the first player to get an extended run at full-back after Box’s departure. He then lost his place to a local amateur player who only turned professional at 25 years old.
Nigel Barker had been playing open age rugby for Featherstone Miners’ Welfare for five years, and so he might have been forgiven for thinking that his chances of making the grade had gone. However, he finally signed professional forms in December 1980 and went on to make his first team debut in January 1981. A no-frills style of full-back, Nigel proved to be a durable and reliable member of the first team squad over the next six seasons. After displacing Marsden, he played in every single game of 1981/82, showing a dedicated attitude, solid tackling and great strength in his running. Safe under the high ball, and always well positioned, he did not have the kicking game of his predecessors, but was a calm and assured presence at the back.
Like so many of his team-mates, Barker was inspired in Rovers’ magical cup run of 1982/83, scoring two tries in the second round at Salford, followed by marvellous work in the later rounds against Saints, Bradford and Hull to claim a cherished Cup winner’s medal. He finished that season with ten tries, the best haul in his career. Despite Rovers signing more than one Antipodean import full-back, including Allan MacMahon and Rod Pethybridge, Nigel missed very few games over the next three seasons. It wasn’t until early in 1986 when Chris Bibb emerged as a contender for the full-back shirt that Barker lost his regular first team slot. With the nature of the game changing, full-backs were now being used as attacking weapons and pace became vital. Inevitably Barker lost out to the younger and faster Bibb, but nevertheless Nigel continued to serve the club faithfully in the ‘A’ team. His loyalty was rewarded in 1991 when he was granted a benefit year after which, at the age of 36, he retired. In eleven seasons he made 199 first team appearances and scored 28 tries.