Reproduced from Big Issue in the North magazine dated January 28th - buy the magazine whenever you see a seller.
You wouldn’t call it an outburst but for someone as cool as Kevin Sinfield his post-match speech after lifting rugby league’s ultimate prize at old Trafford last October came as something of a surprise.
A slump in form in the early part of last year’s Super League had brought brickbats for Leeds Rhinos from pundits and fans, and resulted in the Headingley side finishing fifth in the League.
So when the captain led his side through the play-offs – including a victory over favourites Warrington Wolves – to a 32-16 defeat of St Helens to win the Engage Super League Grand Final for a record-tying fifth time, he took the chance to vent his feelings.
“To all those people who wrote this team off, to all those people that criticised this team, tonight’s for you” he said passionately over the mic to a 69,000-strong crowd and a TV audience of millions.
Three months later the articulate, unaffected 31-year-old from Oldham – who made his debut for the Rhinos in 1997 – has not regrets.
“I have said a million times before that this Leeds side is at its best in adversity, when people write us off we thrive. I felt some of the criticism was too personal, but as I said at Old Trafford I’d like to thank those who made it as it inspired us to prove them wrong.”
Leeds Rhinos kick off their 2012 campaign on 3 February when they take on Hull KR at their Headingley Carnegie Stadium. Sinfield knows the sardonic thanks he offered at Old Trafford will count for little if Leeds struggle.
“I guess some of those who were proved wrong are just waiting for us to trip up, but I am proud to lead this team,” he says, laughing.
He’s done that since 2003 season, a year later finishing as Super League’s top scorer with 152 goals and 3-drop goals and leading the side to their first Grand Final victory.
Adept at loose forward, hooker and stand-off, he’s also become – according to Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington – the “finest kicker in the history of rugby”, better even than rugby union’s Jonny Wilkinson.
It was a late Sinfield penalty kick that gave his side a narrow win over Warrington Wolves in the play-off semi-finals last year, and added two more points to a total that was already more than anyone in Super League has scored. And he still has three years of his contract to run.
This year Sinfield – holder of a sport science degree and as inspirational a leader on the field as he is thoughtful and composed off it – knows there’s no room for complacency as the likes of Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and St Helens pursue revenge. There’s also the question of the World Club Challenge against Aussie Champions Manley Sea Eagles at Headingley on 17 February.
Sinfield and the Rhinos, exploiting, home advantage, won the fixture in 2005 and 2008 but face stiff challenge this month, Aussie sides prevailing for the last three years.
“I am really looking forward to it as you always want to pit yourself against the best. Big games attract big crowds, the atmosphere is great and you improve by working hard individually, and as a team, and by learning from previous experiences and mistakes.”
At international level, by his own admission, Sinfield hasn’t always shone, and has endured his fair share of losses to arch-foes Australia. Sinfield will deny hew as tired at the end of a 42-game run – another record – last season but by the time the Four Nations final came around in November, ever hopeful England collapsed in familiar style as the Aussies stepped up a gear and won 30-8.
Nevertheless, Sinfield is optimistic about England’s future and backs the re-structuring programme introduced by coach Steve McNamara that includes training camps at Loughborough University throughout the year and a ‘Knights’ squad to shadow the first team.
“We are getting closer. If we had played like we did against New Zealand in the game before the Final I am convinced we would have beaten Australia. Belief is a big factor and I know we can beat them,” he says determinedly.
A short break in Florida with his wife and two children has helped him recharge his batteries and “reflect on the season that had finished”, that included the bus trip back from the Grand Final to Leeds, which recalls his
favourite film The Shawshank Redemption. Tending to avoid his teammates’ drinking he sat with a “smug satisfied grin on my face, not unlike moments in the film where banker Andy Dufresne is, despite his dire circumstances, totally self-satisfied. That film reminds me of certain aspects of winning and losing and that’s why I like it.”
With Sinfield’s will to win and focus, it’s not surprising the statue he’d like to see erected outside Wembley, planned to commemorate rugby league’s association with the stadium, is the Bradford, Wigan and Leeds great of the 1980s and 1990s Ellery Hanley, Perhaps more surprising - but the product of his parents who were trade union stalwarts and socialists - is that his other heroes are former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; the man who helped him out during the successful armed revolution on the small Caribbean Island that culminated in the overthrow of American backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
“They were revolutionaries and they cared about others before themselves, which I think is an important quality when you hold a position of authority” he says. With his parents having visited Cuba he’d like to follow in their footsteps in the not too distant future.
Sinfield insists he can keep his body at its peak as a player and still improve mentally but when he does retire he wants to be the chief executive of a rugby league club. Few would bet against him being as inspirational an off-filed leader as he is on the pitch.