LEEDS RHINOS legend Kevin Sinfield has spoken of how “difficult” he expects it to be playing his final game of rugby league on Saturday.
The former England captain will call time on a remarkable career by leading the club he has dedicated his life to out at Old Trafford for the First Utility Super League Grand Final.
Sinfield, of course, has been there plenty of times before – six wins from seven attempts, a record haul for a captain – but this occasion is understandably different.
The 35-year-old, who will soon switch to rugby union with Yorkshire Carnegie, is easily the West Yorkshire club’s greatest leader and unquestionably one of the finest players of his generation.
As the stand-off prepared to face Wigan Warriors, he was asked what it would mean to sign off as a champion again and in doing so complete a first for Leeds: the season treble of Grand Final, League Leaders’ Shield and Challenge Cup glory.
Watch Dave Craven give his verdict on Saturday’s Grand Final by clicking the video window above
“I’ve got decent memories of lifting the trophy and I’d love to be able to do it one more time,” said Sinfield, whose only loss was against Bradford Bulls in 2005.
“But up until Monday, when I saw it at the press conference, I’d not thought about it. I just want to go and play well on Saturday.
“There’d be no better way to bow out. When the (Carnegie) announcement was made in March you have an idea of how you want to finish and finishing here with the trophy would be brilliant.
“I know how difficult it’s going to be, and I know and remember (St Helens) Keiron Cunningham’s final act as a rugby player there when Wigan beat them at Old Trafford.
“After winning against Saints on Friday and speaking to Keiron I remember quite vividly how difficult it must have been for him to finish that way.
“Whatever happens on Saturday we’ll give it our all and be able to look into that mirror afterwards.”
Former Great Britain team-mate Cunningham, similarly iconic and now in charge of defending champions Saints, played his 496th and last St Helens game in that 2010 decider.
Remarkably, Sinfield racks up his 521st match at Old Trafford for Rhinos, the club he debuted with as a 16-year-old against Sheffield Eagles in 1997, following an illustrious career.
The prolific goal-kicker is the third highest points scorer in the sport’s entire history, won the 2012 Golden Boot as the world’s best player and received the MBE last year for services to the game.
Fittingly, then, there will be a sell-out crowd of 73,000 for the first time at the Grand Final as favourites Leeds tackle second-placed Wigan in the showpiece most neutrals wanted to see.
Rhinos, though, have never defeated Wigan in a major final, this, ironically, being the only time they have faced each other in Super League’s showpiece since the inaugural event of 1998.
Jason Robinson’s famous try decided things in Wigan’s favour that night but the building blocks for Rhinos’ sustained success during the summer era were in place. Sinfield recalled: “It was a great team in ’98; aggressive, very skilled and fit as well.
“The likes of Darren Fleary, Anthony Farrell, Moz (Adrian Morley), Barrie Mac (McDermott) – although he didn’t play in the final – and Marc Glanville.
“Then you had the class of Iestyn (Harris), Ryan Sheridan, Franny Cummins: it was a great side and I’ve learned so much from those guys.
“I was there (Old Trafford) in ’98; I’d played a couple of times that year but we actually won the academy championship that season and we did the lap of honour at half-time around the pitch.
“It was a special night even though Leeds didn’t get the result. That game gave everyone an idea of what we could achieve with the Grand Final and what Super League could produce year after year.”
Although Sinfield has achieved most things in his Leeds career, the prospect of completing that treble is new to him.
“There’s not many teams who’ve done it,” he said.
“In my 19 seasons at the Rhinos we’ve never had an opportunity like this to do it before.
“As for where it’d rank for me, it’s probably best answering that after the game because you don’t know what will happen but it’d be right up there.
“How the team have performed this year and the trophies we’ve won already have made it a special year for everyone not just the three (Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai are retiring) leaving.”