Leeds Rhinos v Warrington Wolves: All eyes on Wembley as Kevin Sinfield starts to rebuild

IN times gone by, ahead of a fixture like tomorrow's, Kevin Sinfield would be running through the final practice session in readiness for one of the biggest games of all '“ a Challenge Cup semi-final.

Leading the way: Leeds Rhino' James Lowes, left, and Kevin Sinfield.
Leading the way: Leeds Rhino' James Lowes, left, and Kevin Sinfield.

He will repeat those actions with Leeds Rhinos this morning as the club aim to reach Wembley yet again, but this time with one major difference.

Whereas before Sinfield played the eponymous role in the ‘Captain’s Run’, the very heartbeat of a renowned Leeds team, dictating on the field and invariably coming up with crucial plays to guide them home, now he must settle back and hand over control.

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Ahead of tomorrow’s battle with Warrington Wolves, the 37-year-old – who reached seven Challenge Cup finals with Rhinos winning two – is, of course, now the West Yorkshire club’s director of rugby, a role he has held for barely four weeks.

It is perhaps an ideal time to ask how he is dealing with the adjustment of turning from player to coach?

“Jimmy (Lowes) does most of the coaching; we run sessions through between us and plan and I jump in here and there,” explained Sinfield.

“Part of me wishes I was playing and able to affect it. But I’m too old now so I’ve got to get over it and I’ve enjoyed it.

“Even when I look back on last Friday, it was horrible, but I think the challenge of improving yourself and testing yourself is great.

Leeds Rhinos training ahead of the Challenge Cup semi final

“But also the challenge of trying to improve 30 other people as well and making them better is very rewarding.”

The Friday the former England captain refers to is the 38-22 defeat at lowly Salford Red Devils, widely described as the worst Leeds display this season.

Given they lost seven successive matches under Brian McDermott before he was sacked at the start of last month, it gives an idea of how bad they were, hardly ideal the week before a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final. Speaking at the start of the week, Sinfield admitted: “Performance is crucial.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to talk about winning (against Warrington), given last Friday’s performance.

“I think we’ve got a lot to work on before we even think about winning. But we’ve been the underdog many, many times – the Grand Final last year against Castleford we were massive underdogs – and been able to use it to our advantage and we’ll try and do that this time.

“We’ve just got to perform. We’ll give ourselves a chance then.”

It is the second time in just three years that, as reigning Super League champions, Leeds have found themselves in the bottom four scrapping to avoid relegation. Admittedly, that process does not begin until a week’s time when they host Toulouse in the opening Qualifiers game and, for now, all eyes are on Wembley.

However, looking at the bigger picture, Sinfield admits there is a lot of work to be done to return Leeds to their previous heights.

“It reminds me very much of when I first started,” he said.

“I was unavailable to play then because of my age, but it reminds me of 1996 and certainly a little bit of ’97.

“It took a couple of years from then to win silverware and consistently start winning silverware. I am under no illusion how big a task it is. We are going to face some setbacks along the way and it’s going to be tough, but ultimately I believe we’ll get there.”

In 1996, Leeds were on their knees when Paul Caddick and Gary Hetherington took over to begin turning them into the summer era’s most successful club.

Sinfield, who debuted as a 16-year-old in 1997 and eventually led them to seven Super League titles, said: “I think we are miles further ahead (than in ’96) with the infrastructure and people involved at the club.

“But we do need to change. Probably in previous years we might just have tinkered a bit, but there probably has to be decent-sized changes here to affect what we’re putting out on the field.”

On the field tomorrow, the challenge is overcoming a Warrington side that has undergone its own re-birth since Australian Steve Price took over from long-serving former Grand Final-winning Rhinos coach Tony Smith at the end of last year.

Granted, Leeds have beaten them this season but it seems an eternity ago when McDermott’s Rhinos opened their title defence with a 16-12 success at Halliwell Jones Stadium on February 1.

Since then, Warrington have grown under Price and, having finished the regular season just three points behind second-placed Wigan Warriors, have high hopes of a tilt at not only Challenge Cup glory but a maiden Super League title, too.

They only lost to runaway leaders St Helens last week due to a remarkable 54m penalty after the final hooter and Sinfield admitted: “Warrington are a good side.

“They’ve got some good players and they’ve recruited really well.

“Steve Price has done a terrific job. Kylie Leuluai is there as well (as head of rugby operations), a good friend of mine and a good friend of this club. He’s had a huge impact on what they’re doing.

“It’s a tough proposition. I watched their game last week against Saints and I thought they were unlucky. I thought it was a great game to watch and they’ll be a huge challenge for us.

“Even after last Friday’s disappointment I still believe in this group and I still think we are capable of performing really, really well this weekend.

“Everybody wants to talk about the relegation battle and what’s to come in the Eights. But that’s for further down the track.”

Leeds are boosted by the return of Ryan Hall, Jack Walker, Richie Myler, Adam Cuthbertson and Mikolaj Oledzki.