WHEN Kevin Sinfield told the Leeds Rhinos hierarchy that this would be his final season wearing the famous blue and amber, it could easily have prompted a significant nervous sweat.
How do you replace one of the modern game’s true greats, a prolific points scorer, inspirational leader and master tactician?
Of course, the club is not naive; it has not reached the heights it has – six-times Super League champions and thrice World Club victors while Sinfield has held the tiller – without showing some foresight and planning.
They always knew this moment would come, the only surprise being that Sinfield, 34, is departing 12 months earlier than they may have expected in order to take up an opportunity with Yorkshire Carnegie.
One of the reasons the club will not be too alarmed at his impending departure must be the impressive form – and mindset – of Liam Sutcliffe.
The 20-year-old has deputised for Sinfield in recent weeks while the Rhinos talisman nursed a hamstring injury and the manner in which he has done so has only strengthend the belief Leeds do not need to look into the market to seek a more high-profile replacement.
Chief executive Gary Hetherington and head coach Brian McDermott have intimated that the Academy product will be given his chance in 2016 to make that half-back slot his own and that is such a refreshing attitude.
It is probably not a surprise considering Leeds’ history – in the summer era, at least – of promoting their own youth talent but, given Sinfield’s general aura and obvious importance, it would have been easy to go out and seek a world-class Antipodean No 6 as a ready-made replacement.
Sutcliffe has earned his chance. Those at Headingley who have seen his development have pointed to a maturity beyond his years and an ability to maintain a high consistency in everything he does on and off the pitch.
For gifted teenagers coming through the ranks at one of the world’s most famous clubs, the journey can be wildly fluctuating with memorable highs interspersed with inevitable lows, whether that be dips in form or a return to the Under-21s.
Yet Sutcliffe, a tall, rangy six who, like Sinfield, is equally at home at 13, has absorbed all those ups and downs and never deviated.
Having brilliantly surged onto the scene – quite literally with memorable breaks and tries – during an injury crisis in 2013, there could have been dejection when he fell back down the pecking order once Sinfield and Danny McGuire regained fitness.
Similarly, being loaned to a struggling Bradford Bulls’ side crippled by financial woe last season, or playing in front of just a few hundred fans while on dual-registration at Hunslet, could have tested his resolve.
But, those who work with him testify that he remained unruffled, got on with the job, just like he does on the pitch where he quickly learned to boss the likes of gnarled veterans Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai in order to facilitate team victories.
There are similarities with the tyro Sinfield. It would be wrong and irresponsible to label him as the next Kevin Sinfield.
But there is no fear, having certainly learned from this record-breaking former England captain’s example in these last few formative seasons, that Sutcliffe can become the leader the next Leeds era will undoubtedly require once the current talisman is gone.