Kevin Sinfield's happy as an underdog
The Leeds captain tells Dave Hadfield that he will take special pleasure if the Rhinos can confound their critics again
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Saturday 06 October 2012
It says much about Kevin Sinfield the perfectionist that, in one important respect, this season has already fallen short of his aspirations. After last season's ultimately successful roller-coaster ride, the Leeds captain hoped to be on a more even keel this year.
"We sat down before the start of the season and said that the one thing we wanted to achieve was consistency," he says. "We haven't managed that and it's frustrating."
The downs this time have not been quite as deep as last; it is still true to say of the Rhinos that when they are bad they can be very bad, but when they are good there's usually a Grand Final looming.
"I don't know what it is that causes that," Sinfield says. He knows what it isn't, though; it isn't a case of consciously holding anything back for the business end of the season.
"The flip-side of it is that it makes a lot of people write us off – and we like that."
Leeds again finished a modest fifth in the Super League table and there were times when it was possible to imagine the champions missing out on the play-offs.
Despite their Grand Final record, they are second favourites to Warrington today – and that is the way Leeds and Sinfield like it.
"I've enjoyed the whole season, but I can't explain why we're sometimes up there and sometimes down there," he says.
The only partial explanation he can provide is the special contribution of a number of his team-mates in the latter stages of the season.
It is not long since there was loose talk about Jamie Peacock being over the hill and, in the memorable phrase coined by one pundit, "playing like a 40-year-old".
"Since then," says Sinfield, "JP has been an absolute warrior for us. He has really dug deep and has inspired the players around him."
Also significant for the Rhinos, Sinfield says, have been a couple of positional switches.
"Zak Hardaker was playing very well at centre, but since he's moved to full-back, he's been a revelation.
"Brent Webb has been great for us at full-back; Zak doesn't give you the same things – the experience and the football brain – as Webby, but he makes up for it with the way he runs the ball. He's so direct, he's devastating."
Hardaker was picked up from semi-professional Featherstone Rovers and Sinfield believes there is a lesson in that, especially with the Super League under-20 competition being ditched next year.
As a thinker about the game and surely a voice in its future – he is to start an MA in sports administration when his playing career is over – Sinfield is concerned about the next generation. "The young players coming through need somewhere they can be nurtured," he says. "I'm not sure they're going to have that."
Not so young, but a crucial contributor to Leeds' late-season surge, Sinfield believes, is Ryan Bailey. He has been playing what amounts to a newly created position, that of third prop, nominally listed at the back of the scrum, but operating through the middle.
"It's the Australian system – and unfortunately we have to copy that – but it's suited Ryan, because I think this is the best he's ever played," Sinfield says.
"He's a loveable rogue, is Ryan. Teams are always looking where he is, because he's a handful. He winds up opposition fans as well, which is something that he thrives on. For a big man, he just has the best engine you could find."
That is the sort of analysis and assessment of the players around him that has made Sinfield what many believe to be the best leader Leeds have ever had.
"He's not the best stand-off, or the best loose forward, but he's definitely the greatest captain," says the veteran administrator Harry Jepson, who has 80 years of memories to draw upon for comparison.
Those who have played under Sinfield's captaincy say that his ability to rally a team to a common cause is unique.
There is almost a political dimension to this. Although he says now that accounts of his youthful radicalism were over-stated, there is little doubt which side of the road he walks on.
At a time when many players, in rugby league as well as other sports, see themselves as little businesses, his view is subtly different.
"The way I see it is that we're working men – and I'm proud of that."
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