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Kevin Sinfield: in a league of his own

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Kevin Sinfield: in a league of his own
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A 32-year-old man from Oldham sits quietly in a hotel room in central London, a photographer moving stealthily around him to get the obligatory one last shot. He is keen to return north as soon as possible, to his adopted home of Leeds, but not a flicker of irritation emanates from him. Kevin Sinfield is here to represent the Super League, and it is something he does with patience, grace and no little positivity.

“At the minute there‘s quite a lot of negative stuff around the sport, on the back of Bradford and Salford‘s financial problems,“ he says. “But both clubs have been saved, and I think there should be a positivity about rugby league in 2013. The standards that Super League are going to set this year are going to be higher than ever, I believe, and there‘s a World Cup at the end of it. It‘s a big year for all of us.“

The concerns surrounding the financial state of the sport in this country refuse to go away, however. The 2013 Super League begins without a title sponsor – can you imagine football‘s Premier League or rugby union‘s Premiership in the same situation? – while only this week a BBC investigation found that Super League clubs are facing combined debts of £68.5m. It doesn‘t make for pretty reading, but the bright side to which Sinfield refers does exist – attendances were at an all-time high in 2012, while Sky‘s continued support of the Super League guarantees that more people are watching the sport on television than ever before.

On the pitch, too, things are looking good. Sinfield captained his beloved Leeds Rhinos to a third World Club Challenge victory, over the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, at the start of last season; and, despite suffering a heartbreaking fifth defeat in the Challenge Cup final, ended the year with a record sixth victory in the Super League Grand Final.

Sinfield himself picked up the Harry Sunderland Trophy for the Old Trafford showpiece‘s man of the match, before receiving the ultimate award in his sport: the Golden Boot, awarded to the man deemed the best rugby league player on the planet.

“I was chuffed to bits just to be nominated, so to go on and win it was really surprising,“ he reflects. “Why was I surprised? Well, just look at the names who have won it before, and then at the other nominees: Sam Tomkins would have got my vote, although I‘m a big fan of the Aussies as well – especially Cameron Smith and Billy Slater. So for me to win was sort of unreal, but also a very proud moment.“

A quick look at the great and good to have previously picked up the Golden Boot, first awarded to Australia‘s Wally Lewis in 1984, shows that Sinfield is only the fourth Brit to receive the honour. He follows Ellery Hanley, Garry Schofield and Andy Farrell on to that elite list, but is typically keen to share the credit for his individual success.

“I don‘t think it was recognition just for me, but also for Leeds and what we‘ve done as a team over the last 10 or 15 years,“ he explains. “I‘ve played alongside some fantastic players, for England as well as for Leeds, so I see it as recognition for both of those teams as well. It‘s a shame we‘ve had only four winners over the years, but I feel very fortunate to be a part of that now.“

Now 32, Sinfield is that rarest of beasts in modern, top-level sport: a one-club man. It is now almost 20 years since he first signed for Leeds, but how did a teenage Oldham fan come to be picked up by a club from across the Pennines?

“I got scouted playing for Lancashire against Yorkshire at Wakefield,“ he recalls. “At the time, the Wigan scout was the Lancashire under-15 coach, and he was watching our game before his own team played. Wigan had already signed a lad who was playing in my game, but someone passed a comment that they‘d signed the wrong one, that they should have signed me. It was just a fleeting comment, I think, but the Leeds scout heard it and the next thing the phone was ringing. At the time I‘d also been in talks with Wigan and Warrington, but it just felt right.“

So began a love affair with the Rhinos that has seen Sinfield become one of the most decorated players in Super League history. The Leeds captain has lifted the Grand Final trophy no fewer than six times in the past nine years, but it could all have been very different had he accepted offers to move to Australia – or across the divide to union – more than a decade ago.

“I have come close to leaving the Rhinos,“ he admits. “But not so close that there was ever a contract agreed or anything. I spoke with rugby union and Australia back at the end of 2002, but at that time I‘d not won anything with Leeds. Sport tends to go in cycles, and I felt that with the young lads we had coming through at Leeds back then, we might be about to have a cycle of our own.

“I was always tempted by rugby union, I suppose – the international stage, the World Cups and so forth are a massive draw – but Leeds showed a lot of loyalty to me, and it has been nice to give some of that loyalty back over the years. I don‘t regret any of it, by the way. I‘ve loved every minute, and I can honestly say that I have never even looked at another rugby league club in this country.“

The mutual affection between player and club is one that has been cemented in the past two Super League seasons, when the Rhinos have somehow managed to grab Grand Final glory on the back of disappointing fifth-place finishes in the regular campaign. Does their inspirational captain have any explanation for such heroics?

“Not really – and we certainly haven‘t done it on purpose,“ he smiles. “The route we took in the playoffs last year [they had to win away at Catalans Dragons and Wigan to make the Grand Final] is about as difficult as it gets, I think. We‘d have loved to have finished as league leaders and gone on to win the Grand Final, but we weren‘t good enough to do that through the year.

“We came up against some great teams and got turned over by all different sides last year. The quality in the Super League now is such that if you‘re not quite right on the day, then you‘re going to get beaten. But it‘s funny, because when we ended up fifth last season, and found ourselves in the same scenario as the previous year, we found ourselves asking: ‘Why not? Why can‘t we do it again?‘ We knew what was coming, where we‘d have to go and how we‘d have to play. We just knew that if we got on to a bit of a roll...“

Here, Sinfield drifts off into the kind of pleasurable reverie one suspects he doesn‘t allow himself too often. It doesn‘t last long, however, as his focus returns and he reflects on whether the fact that Leeds faced Warrington Wolves in both major domestic finals last season represents a shift in the balance of power away from the traditionally dominant forces of Wigan and St Helens.

“I don‘t think so, no,“ he decides. “We beat Wigan in both semis last season, and Saints were very close too. I think any one of those four clubs can challenge – and I‘d probably extend that list of four, by the way, to throw Catalans in there, and possibly Hull too. I just think the competition is going to be a whole lot stronger this year. It‘s all up for grabs, but we‘ll do our very best in every competition – and hopefully we‘ll be good enough to get some more silverware.“

Tony Hodson @tonyhodson1

Kevin Sinfield will lead Leeds Rhinos against Hull FC tonight, in the first of over 70 live Super League games on Sky Sports this season. Watch on TV and on the move with Sky Go