Interview: Sinfield prepares for change of direction

Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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THE notion that he and long-time playing colleague Jamie Peacock could soon be vying for Gary Hetherington’s job is laughed off by Kevin Sinfield as casually as if he had kicked yet another successful conversion.

Three names hugely synonymous with Leeds Rhinos for three different reasons.

Sinfield, the inspirational captain who has led the club to its most successful era in 144 years, Peacock, the thunderous forward who arrived from arch-rivals Bradford Bulls to underpin Leeds’ domination and Hetherington, the canny chief executive whose business acumen has helped make them one of the most envied operations in the sport.

But, just as with all dynasties, changes inevitably are afoot.

Peacock is preparing for the final year of his remarkable playing career, while Sinfield is heading into the penultimate campaign of his given he has publicly said the end of 2016 is his likely retirement date.

Both are currently undertaking a masters degree in sport business at Leeds Beckett University and Peacock, in particular, has been vocal in expressing his desire to get involved in rugby league at administrative level.

So, are they both gunning for Hetherington’s job?

“Probably one of the reasons we work so well is we’re so different,” said Sinfield, about his Rhinos team-mate of nine years.

“JP is very strong in his mindset, very opinionated, very, very driven and I’ve no doubt whatsoever he will be a huge success whatever he does.

“He’s probably got bigger fish to fry, to be honest. I think he’s probably after (RFL chief executive) Nigel Wood!

“He may knock Gary off on the way. I’m not quite sure.”

In all seriousness, Sinfield admits, when his playing shirt is swapped for a suit, he will be starting afresh just like when he was a 16-year-old schoolboy debutant for Leeds in 1997.

“The reality is we start at the bottom and, though we may have some academic background now in sport business, a bit like passing your driving test, you start again,” he said.

“We have loads to learn. Hopefully, there’ll be a role here (at Rhinos) for me. I’d like to think that would be alongside Gary rather than to replace him.

“He’s not lost any of his drive and I think Gary will be here for a long time. Hopefully, I will be, too, but if not, I’d like to think the qualifications and sporting playing experience picked up along the way, will help me.”

Such is his longevity that, when that retirement day does arrive, the former England captain will have played fully 20 years for the Headingley club.

Thus, for a whole generation of Leeds supporters, they cannot recall a time when the prolific stand-off was not pulling on a blue and amber jersey.

It is hard to imagine Sinfield, who received his MBE for services to rugby league from Prince William last month, not carrying on there in some guise.

But he added: “I’ve been here that long now I suppose I’d also like to see what else is out there.

“If this place is going from strength to strength you’d probably say why move? But it’d be quite interesting to see how another sport operates from an administration point of view, maybe learn other lessons and bring some back to league in the future, but there’s no set plan. I’d like to start here in a role but that has to work for everyone.”

The man who won the ‘Golden Boot’ as the world’s finest player in 2012 admits he has “probably not” yet truly thought about the point where he will no longer step onto that field with Leeds.

But Sinfield did say: “You try to plan for life after rugby for when there is that void. You try to fill it with something where you can get a lot of satisfaction. I don’t think there will ever be anything I find that fills the hole left from finishing playing and the satisfaction you can get from playing well and winning trophies but you have to try.

“That process has been ongoing for a couple of years and I’m not worried or concerned about finishing but what I will try and do is keep fit.

“I think that will probably help. The urge to play will always be there but as long as I can keep myself in a decent shape…”

You won’t see him playing for his old amateur club Waterhead in Oldham – “No. No. Certainly not..!” – but he is often spotted in those circles given both his sons are playing rugby league.

Each has said they want to play professional. Jack, the eldest at 10, plays football, too, but one love must give way soon.

“I think Jack will end up as a six,” said Sinfield, who decided at 11 he wanted this as a career.

“He’s probably a similar build to what I was and one thing in his favour is he’s watched about 250 of my matches now so his understanding of the game is there. We’ll see.

“There’s certainly no pressure from me and given the choice I’d probably actually try and move him into a different sport; I just don’t want him to carry a tag around about being my son and following in my footsteps.

“He has to be his own – they both do – but you just want the best for them. I don’t mind what they go into as long as they enjoy and throw everything at it.”

That last point is particularly pertinent; dedication is a watchword for Sinfield.

He has not reached his heights – six Super League titles, three World Club Challenges, that previously elusive Challenge Cup and 41 caps for his country – without that prerequisite.

Sinfield maintains, despite the usual detractors, there can be yet more glory.

Leeds have not reached Old Trafford since 2012 which amounts to a drought by their standards and, with Ryan Bailey, Ian Kirke and their combined 500-plus Leeds appearances now gone, the “transition” phase has perhaps already begun.

“There will be quite a big transition but people quite often associate that word with no silverware and this place doesn’t accept that,” said Sinfield.

“We’ve some very talented young boys who have played a handful of games, and others, like Liam Sutcliffe, who has made a lot more and turned into a top, top-line player.

“I know there’s a lot of negativity regarding the squad and losing Kirkey and Bails, who have both been fantastic. I wish them well in what they do.

“But I believe the core of this squad was built on young lads coming through and it’s time for the next batch to come and fight for some spots. I’m optimistic,

“As you know, you play for this club and the jerseys weigh a little bit more – the expectation and pressure is always there – but when you get it right it’s the best club in the world to play for.

“I’m aware there are a lot of people writing us off but that’s happened a thousand times before and I’ll guarantee the side that takes to the field will give everything it has got and, hopefully, surprise a few people.”

The Kevin Sinfield story .....

1980: Born September 12 in Oldham.

1997: Makes Leeds Rhinos debut against Sheffield Eagles at the age of 16.

2000: Dropped for Challenge Cup final as Leeds lose to Bradford Bulls. Makes England debut at World Cup.

2003: Aged 22, made captain of Rhinos by coach Daryl Powell. Loses another Challenge Cup final in Cardiff.

2004: Leads club to famous Grand Final win, their first league title since 1972.

2005: Wins first of three World Club Challenge titles after Leeds defeat Canterbury at Elland Road. Another Challenge Cup final, another loss as Hull pinch it at the end. Sinfield takes Lance Todd Trophy as man-of-the-match.

2007: Captains Leeds to second Grand Final triumph at Old Trafford.

2008: Defends league title as Rhinos defeat St Helens.

2009: Leeds see off Saints for third successive season in Manchester, Sinfield winning the Harry Sunderland Award as man-of-the-match.

2012: Becomes Leeds’ all-time record points scorer, named England captain and takes the Harry Sunderland Trophy again after another Grand Final success.

2013: Wins ‘Golden Boot’ as world’s best player for 2012

2014: Awarded an MBE for services to the sport, finally wins the Challenge Cup final at sixth attempt and retires from international rugby league.