England’s loss is Rhinos’ gain as Sinfield looks to extend career

SMILE: Jamie Peacock takes a selfie with Rhinos' team-mate and captain Kevin Sinfield.
SMILE: Jamie Peacock takes a selfie with Rhinos' team-mate and captain Kevin Sinfield.
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IT is in a ‘selfie’, taken during the immediate aftermath of Leeds Rhinos’ memorable Challenge Cup final win last month, that lies the most likely reason behind Kevin Sinfield’s surprise international retirement.

It was not shot by him; you cannot really imagine the Leeds captain being too indulgent when it comes to hogging the cameras.

Always happy to have his picture taken by adoring fans, he doesn’t partake personally in Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or any such social media outlets.

But sat next to Sinfield in the resulting image is a beaming Jamie Peacock, the instigator of the shoot, who is captured with a ribbon around his neck bestowing a winners’ medal.

At 36, savouring the moment Leeds’s long quest for glory in that competition was finally achieved and in the inner sanctum of their dressing room below the Wembley stands, the ageless prop doesn’t look like he has just produced 71 minutes of unyielding graft and endeavour.

Far from it, Peacock looks like he could go straight out and repeat the feat again, reminding those impressive forwards from Castleford Tigers that he, still, is king of the middle.

Of course, part of the reason Peacock has been able to defy Father Time and consistently produce such stellar performances is because he, after great internal debate, gave up something so precious to himself two years earlier – international football.

Standing down as England captain in June 2012 was one of the toughest decisions of his life.

As he said at the time, “to play and captain your country is the highest honour,” and, boy, did he relish each and every one of those occasions whether it be against the old foe Australia, the Kiwis or even those new-fangled Exiles.

But, then aged 34 and with so many already miles on the clock, the over-riding desire was to keep on playing the sport he loved for as long as possible.

That meant something had to give: international football.

No one, though, could have foreseen just how much of a positive impact it would have on his game.

With the benefit of a full pre-season, essentially for the first time since his international career had begun at the 2000 World Cup, Peacock entered the 2013 season not still jaded and playing catch-up following the travails of another sapping Four Nations. He was fresh, refocused and reinvigorated.

The result was not just an Indian summer; he produced arguably his finest club rugby since earning the Man of Steel for treble-winning Bradford Bulls fully a decade earlier in 2003.

At times last year, he was unplayable and it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would bust the first tackler when he carried while it would ordinarily take three defenders to drag him down and he finished as the only player in the entire competition to make more than 4,000m. But his defensive statistics were astonishing, too, for someone with such a voracious appetite for work on attack.

Peacock made 868 tackles in Super League bettered only by four players including, as you would expect, a trio of hookers in Danny Houghton, Paul Aiton and Ian Henderson.

He was only pipped to a second Man of Steel by the remarkable efforts of Danny Brough, the creative genius who inspired Huddersfield Giants to their first top-place finish in 81 years.

Yet it wasn’t a one-off. Peacock has repeated the feats this year, too, and it would be no surprise if he did go one better next month and snare the trophy as Super League’s most influential player.

Sinfield, who has always had such respect for Peacock first as an opponent and then, over the last eight years, as club colleague at Headingley, cannot fail to have noticed the direct correlation.

Like Peacock before him, Sinfield is also 34 at the point of standing down as England captain, a decision which was revealed, prompting surprise from many, a week ago today.

There was surprise as the player, who succeeded the talisman prop as national captain, had just a few months earlier spoken of “unfinished business” with England.

The memory of that agonising World Cup semi-final defeat to New Zealand last November, when Sinfield’s missed tackle in the closing seconds saw the holders snatch a dramatic victory, was still present.

He had been superb in that game and looked sure to lead his country into the Old Trafford finale against Australia only for one momentary lapse to prove so costly. But it seemed Sinfield would have at least one more crack at them both in the Four Nations Down Under this autumn.

There has been a change of heart in the interim and perhaps at last securing that previously elusive Challenge Cup winners medal – after five previous losses – on his first return to Wembley since that Kiwi heartache brought him the clarity he required. All of that victorious Leeds squad have spoken not about having their appetite sated after finally lifting the Challenge Cup but rather wanting to win yet more Challenge Cup now the duck is broken.

Sinfield is one of them. Maybe he realised in order to do that, to reproduce his own best consistently enough to make that happen, another draining trip Down Under after an arduous domestic campaign is not the best preparation.

It was a ridiculously tough decision for him to make.

Let’s not forget, for all his unrivalled success as a six-time Grand Final winning captain of Leeds, he has had to battle time and again to prove his worth on the international scene.

Sinfield, over the last four or five years, had done just that and was viewed as integral by the current national coach Steve McNamara.

But I remember interviewing him in 2004, not long after becoming the first Leeds captain to lead that club to a league title in 32 years following a brilliant season, and listening to his disappointment and hurt at being left out of Brian Noble’s Great Britain Tri Nations squad.

That was just one of many setbacks on the international stage and each time he vowed to dig deeper and respond.

Inevitably, he did and Sinfield eventually found his rightful place in the national side but, after all that toil, it illustrates how much of a wrench it must now be to give it all up.

But then, with a sideways glance to that man JP, perhaps reality struck and England’s loss should be Leeds’ gain.

Who to replace him? For me, Sean O’Loughlin. So forceful against Leeds during Wigan Warriors’ win on Friday night, the formidable loose forward ticks all the right boxes with many of the same traits as the departing leader – utterly professional, totally committed, determined, loyal, inspirational and laced with an innate winning mentality.