Kevin Sinfield captains England for the first time tomorrow against a Wales side managed by his old chauffeur. The Leeds Rhinos star tells Dave Craven about his early life on the road.
For most budding, schoolboy rugby players, sharing a long, daily commute in a car with two Great Britain internationals would be more than a little intimidating.
Especially so when you consider one was the hulking presence of fiery prop Barrie McDermott and the other – Iestyn Harris – had just commanded a record-breaking £350,000 fee for his move from Warrington to Leeds Rhinos.
It was in such company that Kevin Sinfield found himself as a 16-year-old rookie, joining his esteemed colleagues for the 75-mile round trip to Headingley from their various homes dotted around Oldham.
But 15 years on, and countless trophies later, it is Sinfield who will captain his country for the first time tomorrow when England face Wales in Wrexham.
He describes it as the “proudest” moment of a brilliant career and, fittingly, it comes against a Wales side who are now coached by his former travelling companion Harris.
Sinfield, 32, admits both he and McDermott were massive influences during those formative years.
He recollected: “Oldham’s a pretty small-linked community. Within the amateur clubs, everyone knows about everyone else coming through.
“I actually had the same sprint coach as Iestyn. I’d have been about 12 years old and he’d have been 15 or so.
“We had half-a-dozen sessions together – he was real quick – so I knew a lot about him before we started sharing those car journeys and it made it easier.
“It was great for me as a young lad to share a car every day with Iestyn and Barrie.
“They were both internationals at the time and both very good players.
“I learned so much off both of them. They’re both terrific fellas and it was great that I could spend some of my early years with two guys like that.
“It was good to see where you needed to be and where you could get to.”
If ever the aspiring teenager needed to pick the brains of someone, asking questions about any aspect of life as a professional sportsman, he certainly had a vast fountain of knowledge into which he could tap.
Sinfield knew McDermott – who is now head of Leeds’s youth development – even better.
“Barrie was from Waterhead, the same amateur club, and even before Leeds came in for me I’d already been down and trained at Wigan where he was playing,” he explained.
“At the time, Barrie wasn’t driving so my dad used to run him across there.
“That meant, when the time came and we both ended up at Leeds, it was all quite easy sharing those car trips.
“He was like my big brother in loads of ways. It always felt like that on the field; if anybody came in with a high shot, Baz would be straight in looking after the young lads.
“It was the same feeling with Iestyn, too.
“The relationship we had together was special, that banter in the car and when they moved on I missed them both.”
Sinfield made his Leeds debut in 1997, aged just 16, so he initially escaped taking the wheel himself.
“I couldn’t drive at first but as soon as I turned 17 I did a crash course in four weeks and passed,” he added, unsurprising for someone who has made a career out of perfectly piloting any side he has graced.
“I was still in and out of sixth form at that point but when I was about 18 and a half I started properly with sharing the driving.
“They did complain quite a bit, though, about having to get in the back of my Vauxhall Corsa.
“Barrie made some smells at times, too, but you get used to that.”
Leeds captain Harris made his big-money move to Cardiff RU in 2001, by which point Sinfield had already joined him as a Great Britain international.
Given stand-off Harris’s exquisite footballing talent, it came as no shock to the current Leeds captain that he has gone on to make his mark in coaching.
“He was always very intelligent and had great game awareness so it doesn’t surprise me,” said Sinfield about the 36-year-old.
“He’s done a good job everywhere he’s been – head coach at Crusaders, now as assistant with Wigan and also with the things he’s put in place with Wales, too.
“He’s played under some great coaches in both league and union and is doing a terrific job himself.”
Looking ahead to tomorrow’s game, Sinfield, has admitted to being surprised that England coach Steve McNamara elected him as Jamie Peacock’s successor.
“I never thought, presumed or expected and I was really surprised when Steve asked,” he said. “I’ll give it my best shot. I thought there were a number of candidates. I wasn’t sure if Steve wouldn’t go with someone younger.
“James Graham and Moz (Adrian Morley) had done it before and there’s people like Sean O’Loughlin who have done terrific jobs at their clubs.”
Undoubtedly, though, the gifted stand-off has consistently proved his own class as a leader of men.
Having inspired a record-extending sixth Grand Final win for Leeds less than three weeks ago, taking the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match for a second time, he is certainly at the peak of his powers.
It will be his 19th England appearance – he also has 14 Great Britain caps to his name – but the honour of walking his country out for the first time is something he is anticipating more than anything else before.
“It’s something everyone wants to do,” he continued.
“Whatever sport you play, to represent your country is the highest honour but to lead that side out has to be the ultimate.
“It will certainly be the proudest moment of my career, certainly for my family.
“When you talk about representing your country, it’s the next step up. It will be right up there; if not the most important, the best.”
Kopczak aims to move forward with the Giants
Wales captain Craig Kopczak will lead his country out tomorrow with his club future finally resolved after Huddersfield Giants completed a deal for the Bradford Bulls prop.
Kopczak controversially quit Bradford just before the end of the 2012 season, incurring the wrath of his team-mates who had vowed to stick together through the trauma of administration.
He terminated his contract following the takeover by Bradford restaurant owner Omar Khan.
The RFL investigated Kopczak’s conduct following complaints from Odsal and it is thought Huddersfield have now paid compensation for the powerful 25-year-old who rose through the Bulls’ Academy ranks.
Ahead of the game against England in Wrexham, the player insists his move was not purely money-orientated.
“Huddersfield have been top-four material for the past few years and the chance to work with Paul Anderson for me, as a fellow prop, was too good to miss out on,” insisted Kopczak.
“I have been fed up reading many of the comments attributed to my decision to simply look after my family’s best interest and we are all happy that this is now behind us and we can move forward in a Giants shirt next season.
“I see no reason at all why we can’t be challenging at the very top and for me I want a massive year to lead into the World Cup.”
He becomes Huddersfield’s third front-row recruit for 2013 following New Zealand Warriors’ Ukuma Ta’ai and a former Odsal colleague – Wigan’s ex-Great Britain international Stuart Fielden.
Giants head coach Paul Anderson said: “Craig is a player I’ve watched closely for a number of years who has gone from a promising youngster to a top-line performer.
“He is just the sort of no-nonsense, go-forward character I want to see in our forward line next year.”
Castleford Tigers will send half-back Ben Johnston on loan to Dewsbury Rams for 2013 with full-back/winger James Clare heading to fellow Championship club Doncaster.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats centre Danny Cowling, 20, has earned a new contract for next season after an impressive debut this term.