Switch to Carnegie by Sinfield is perfect challenge

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IT COULD easily have been mistaken for a premature April Fools’ Day joke gone wrong.

Kevin Sinfield, or “Sir Kev” as he is known by adoring Leeds Rhinos fans, switching codes to play for the former World Club champions’ oft-maligned sister club Yorkshire Carnegie?

Kevin Sinfield with Sir Ian McGeechan at Headingley. Picture: Steve Riding.

Kevin Sinfield with Sir Ian McGeechan at Headingley. Picture: Steve Riding.

The very notion would have sounded incredulous 24 hours ago. However, once that initial shock dissipated, yesterday’s news about the hugely-decorated former England captain does actually begin to make a lot of sense.

Sinfield, who made his Rhinos debut aged 16 in 1997, always intended to finish his Leeds career at the end of 2016 anyway so bringing that decision forward 12 months is no huge planning shift.

And as someone who has constantly challenged himself throughout his career, the chance to test his skills in another sport now the stand-off has essentially won everything on offer in domestic rugby league, is also something that is alluring.

It says plenty about the 34-year-old’s character that the 2012 Golden Boot winner, as the world’s finest rugby league player, is willing to do that in the Championship.

Some may see that as a step down but Sinfield will happily learn his new trade against the likes of Nottingham, Rotherham Titans and Cornish Pirates rather than in the relative glitz of the Premiership.

Admittedly, he wants to get Carnegie back up to that elite level eventually but, initially, the pair will fit perfectly as Sinfield looks to use his renowned leadership quality, not to mention vast kicking skills, to steer a young and talented side onwards and upwards.

Even given his international retirement last year, the arduous nature of Super League would have hastened his eventual retirement but in union, where he wants to play fly-half, the physical demands in his position will be less taxing and it could, if desired, extend his career well beyond his initial 18-month contract.

Yet it is a bold step; how will he fare playing in front of just 800 fans or so at Headingley where once there was 18,000. And, clearly, he will be a marked man in the Championship.

But what a statement by Carnegie’s new board, attracting such a stellar name to their ranks for their bid to revive hopes of Premiership rugby.

The club, in its various guises, has sometimes been viewed as a poor afterthought behind its rugby league brethren and understandably so but there is now, especially with that fresh board of directors that has no link with the Rhinos side of the operation, a clear bid to make their own way, something this eye-catching signing demonstrates.

The 10th anniversary of Leeds Tykes’ famous Powergen Cup final win over Bath, arguably the club’s finest moment, occurs in a little over a fortnight’s time.

Amid all the decline in their powers since, Sinfield’s imminent arrival could perhaps be the most obvious signal yet that those glory days might still be attainable once more.

“I think first and foremost we have to try and get the club back in the Premiership,” he said.

“That’s a challenge. If we can do that let’s see where we are at and that’s the immediate challenge.

“There will be some more recruitment that takes place, there’s a good squad of players down there who we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks with Bryan’s involvement have really played to their potential and picked up some wins.

“That’s only going to improve. It’s something that is a challenge. I’d love to say we’ll be a top six side in five years but we’ve got to get them up first haven’t we?”

Carnegie are currently sixth in the Championship, where they have resided since relegation in 2011, and unlikely to reach this season’s play-offs despite the obvious lift after the arrival of former Sale Sharks and Gloucester chief Bryan Redpath as their new head coach last month.

Regardless, Sinfield has unfinished business with Leeds first and what price now, with another legend Jamie Peacock also departing in the autumn, of them returning to their second home of Old Trafford for a seventh Grand Final glory?

He admitted, having kept close counsel for some time, telling his team-mates of his decision yesterday was “hard” and added: “When I drove into the car park this morning, I wasn’t sure if I was driving to a party or a funeral.

“There was some surprise. I think one or two had put two and two together at the last minute.

“Jamie Jones (Buchanan) knew. He’s my best mate so I had to tell him. But it was good.

“When you’ve played with a group that long they are not colleagues, they are friends and you want the best for your friends. That’s the sort of reaction I got.

“People shook my hand, wished me all the best and also understand I’ve still a job to do this year and I’m not looking out of the door and gone.”

He admitted he had been approached before to switch codes but never had any urge to leave.

Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington said Academy product Liam Sutcliffe, the rangy 20 year-old who has slotted in effortlessly when required since debuting in 2013, will get first chance to try and make Sinfield’s role his own in 2016. Indeed, he is making a good fist of it now while the veteran nurses a hamstring strain that is likely to see him miss a third consecutive game at Castleford on Friday.

As Rhinos’ Golden Generation slowly begins to part, Ryan Bailey already gone and Kylie Leuluai set to join departing Peacock and Sinfield in October, at least the club knew it was coming.

Head coach Brian McDermott added: “We have to manage that transition, but it can be done.

“It is an exciting period for us, but we are not under-estimating what a role Kevin has had with the club for nearly 20 years. He is massive. Unparalleled, inspirational – a player to be envied.”