Rugby league, so often a collection of fractious tribes, will be united in umbrage if one of their number fails to win the nation’s biggest sporting award on Sunday night.
Kevin Sinfield has already made a little piece of history by becoming the first rugby league player to be shortlisted for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
The Leeds captain for 13 years crammed with the game’s glittering prizes is up against the likes of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Andy Murray, not to mention a certain Tyson Fury. So if Sinfield – one of the outsiders in the field – does not win, no conspiracy theory will be required to explain any perceived snub.
If, by some miracle, it is Sinfield’s name that is revealed to a waiting nation in Belfast, it would, of course, be a major PR coup for the code. Its recognition over the 61 years of the award has been confined to two victories in the Team of the Year section, by Wigan in 1994 and St Helens in 1996. Those occasions are primarily remembered in players’ folklore for the largesse of the free bar.
With Leeds winning the domestic treble of Challenge Cup, League Leaders’ Trophy and Super League this year, many would have liked to see them lift, or at least contend for, Team of the Year this time. Instead, Sinfield, so often synonymous with the whole Rhinos’ operation, has the task of representing the club. He would barely have his feet on the stage, in the unlikely event of an acceptance speech being required, before he paid tribute to his team-mates and insisted that the award was for all of them.
In the case of many sportsmen that would merely be a matter of saying the right thing; Sinfield, off the pitch, genuinely is that self-effacing. Odd then, that he should be in the spotlight on his own, even if only briefly, on Sunday night. As the more churlish have pointed out, he was not even Leeds’ best player last season.
At 35, the long years of being the prime target for the opposition were just beginning to catch up with him; on occasion his coach, Brian McDermott, did the unthinkable and chose to leave him out completely.
He is now a rugby union player, switching to Leeds Carnegie to give himself some experience of a game in which he might some day want to coach.
Any award at this stage would, therefore, be for a lifetime of achievement in rugby league, as well as for his phenomenal powers of leadership. The Rhinos’ resident sage Harry Jepson, who has been watching Leeds for close to 80 years, was asked to put Sinfield in his historical context. “He isn’t the best stand-off-half who has ever played for Leeds,” he said. “He probably isn’t the best loose forward. But he is undoubtedly the best captain.”
That goes some way to explaining why fans from clubs that traditionally detest Leeds have rallied round him this week. Sinfield himself has not lobbied for votes, but the Rhinos and the sponsors of the Challenge Cup, Ladbrokes, certainly have, to the extent of mailing out “I’m backing Kev” rosettes.
You might even see some of them sported west of the Pennines. The letters pages of the game’s weekly papers are good guide to the emotions surrounding the subject. When it comes to avenging ancient wrongs, current border disputes can be put to one side.
The majority view is put by Alison Bancroft from Stockport: “It is our first chance ever to get a rugby league player honoured with this award. So I for one will be voting for Kevin, as it is a vote not just for Leeds but for rugby league.”
Eric Lafferty writes in League Weekly: “I have supported Warrington for over 60 years, but I will certainly be voting for Kevin Sinfield, as he is a wonderful role model for any young sportsman, as well as being a great player for the last 15 years.”
Support from some surprising places, then. You have to be a little careful about how you go about drumming it up, however. The angler Bob Nudd won the popular vote with a record poll in 1991, but was disqualified because a campaign in Angling Times broke the rules.
There are less sinister reasons why Kevin Sinfield will not win on Sunday. Exposure on the BBC is crucial and the days when rugby league was on every Saturday are long gone. The most recent live action the BBC screened was the series against New Zealand – and Sinfield, already retired from international rugby, was not playing.
Sadly, to persuade the terrestrial viewer to vote for him would first involve explaining who he is. And he is not rugby league’s answer to Bob Nudd.
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