FOR most rugby league folk, witnessing Kevin Sinfield finish runner-up at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards was something they probably felt never possible.
Because of that, when the retiring Leeds Rhinos captain amassed more than a quarter-of-a-million public votes to finish second only to Andy Murray, it was reason for great cheer.
You would expect the Rugby Football League’s chief executive Nigel Wood to be as elated as anyone given the gargantuan amount of coverage and profile Sinfield’s appearance on the live televised event gave to the sport that has, traditionally, often struggled to gain recognition on a national scale.
No rugby league player had ever even been short-listed for the award since its inception more than 60 years ago yet Wood insists Sinfield’s success, having led Leeds to the treble before switching codes to Yorkshire Carnegie, should not have been such a shock.
“I don’t think we should be that surprised by it,” Wood, 52, told The Yorkshire Post, when evaluating last year and looking on to 2016.
“I think that maybe betrays a lack of confidence that we have a great sport, we deliver great domestic competition and can stage world-class events as good as any sport in the country.
“I’m not saying that we need to crow about these things but I think we can hold our head high and say that (SPOTY) was an appropriate tribute to a master of his craft, who had been at the top of his sport for the thick edge of two decades and, because his retirement coincided with his club winning the treble, the stars aligned to say ‘This is right’.
“We have to have a bit more self-confidence to believe that it shouldn’t be exceptional.”
Wood, quite rightly, speaks like a proud father who has dedicated his life to nurturing and developing a sport that has too often been marginalised outside its northern roots.
Jamie Peacock, Sinfield’s former Leeds and England colleague who works for the BBC as a rugby league pundit, said Sinfield’s exposure will have done more for the sport than any advert or marketing ploy dreamed up in recent history.
Bradford-born Wood admitted: “It certainly didn’t do us any harm did it?
“I think we need to be careful to pay proper tribute to both our main broadcast partners as Sky deliver wonderful week in, week out coverage, north of 100 games per year, while the Beeb can take us to some of the free-to-air, terrestrial and bigger audiences.
“There were five or six million people watching Sports Personality of the Year and that does help – how can it not? – remind the wider sporting psyche that rugby league is one of the country’s bigger sports.”
Rugby league enters 2016 buoyed not only by that significant BBC appearance just before Christmas but also by last year’s success in general.
It was a pivotal campaign – perhaps the most important since Wood took over as the RFL’s chief executive in 2007 – given the massive restructure of the sport the governing body had overseen.
The new system, after the disbandment of the licensing process, saw two divisions of 12 which, after their regular season, then split into three groups of eight for seven more fixtures.
Those fixtures – the Super 8s – then helped determined promotion and relegation and who played where, either Super League, the Championship or League 1 – in 2016.
The RFL always said the fundamental purpose of the new structure was to make rugby league’s professional competitions more exciting but it was the first time such a radical format had been used in British sport and, subsequently, there was plenty of consternation.
However, what then occurred was a campaign full of drama and intrigue, not least the fact the destination of the League Leaders’ Shield went right down to the very last second of the last regular round as Ryan Hall famously scored at Huddersfield to give Leeds top spot and deny Wigan Warriors. Furthermore, there was the inaugural ‘Million Pound Game’ – fourth versus fifth in the Middle Eight – to decide the last Super League place, Wakefield Trinity holding onto their spot by denying promotion-chasing Bradford Bulls.
Wood accepts it could not have unfolded much better but added: “It’s relevant to reflect on the three years that resulted in 2015.
“It was a three-year programme which effectively started with the World Cup in 2013 which was a celebration of the sport, bringing it to the public consciousness.
“But, at that time, we also had to make the very tough decisions about what the sport would look like post-licensing.
“That was the big discussion about how many teams should be in each division etcetera in 2014.
“We were always hopeful that the changes those tough decisions were made to deliver would be successful.
“I think most fair-minded observers would say 2015 has been a pretty good year really.
“There is that once-in-a-decade finale and drama of the League Leaders’ Shield being presented in injury-time of the final game and all of the real high-calibre entertainment in the Middle Eight and Super League title race.
“There was the narrative of Leeds, winning the treble when seeing three of their top players moving on, and lots of sub-plots for people to get engaged with.
“Then, at the end, we (England) had a terrific international series against New Zealand which we managed to win, the sport making its debut at the Olympic Park in London in front of 44,000 people.
“We’re never totally satisfied but on the whole if, at the start of the season you’d have said that’s what it will look like at the middle of November, we’d probably have taken that.”
No team did gain promotion to Super League last year; Championship League Leaders’ Shield winners Leigh Centurions nosedived spectacularly in the Middle Eights and Bradford failed to return, having lost at Wakefield in that decider.
Some critics argue it is virtually impossible for any side to rise from the Championship under the new format but salary cap rules have been relaxed for those teams in 2016 and many of them are investing heavily.
Wood, personally, is intrigued by what will happen in the second tier this time around but, for the wider picture, his aims are clear.
“Repeat and consolidate,” he said. “It’s interesting. When the Super League play-offs and Grand Finals were first introduced in 1998 it took two or three years to get ingrained.
“I remember when we attempted to explain what the 12s and eights would look like last year there were a number of people who rolled their eyes and shook their head but we never thought it was that complicated.
“I certainly think that it will be better for having been walked through.
“Now, when you look at the thought-process behind it and see how it played itself out with contests at all levels of the professional pyramid, it vindicated the decision the clubs took to support it.
“So, 2016 we’ll be wanting to be as good if not better.
“The litmus test of all this will be the number of people who watch the sport as to whether we’re engaging the public and delivering a compelling competition but I’m confident we are.
“I think the sport is set fair.”