One of the greats of modern rugby league, Kevin Sinfield led Leeds Rhinos to extraordinary success last year and was third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. After 18 years with the club and one playing rugby union, he has just announced he’s retiring at the end of the season and documented his career in a lavishly illustrated book, Kevin Sinfield: My League Years in Words and Pictures (Great Northern, £20).
You’ve got a great memory for all the events in the career. Did they come back to you easily?
Yeah, a lot of them did. There are some poignant memories throughout the book. I really enjoyed it. What made it especially enjoyable was that I knew what the ending was – finishing with the treble and with the final game being at Old Trafford. I feel so fortunate but very proud. So it was really enjoyable – even to go through some of the tough times – I’ve been through some adversity in my career. It was all worth it because I knew it had a fantastic ending. The whole thing gave me a chance to reflect on my career, so I’m very glad I’ve done it.
That last part of last season, from the last minute Ryan Hall try that got you to the top of the table to the Grand Final, was just incredible…
Yeah, I announced around back in late March/early April last year that I was going to play rugby union, but at that stage I’d no idea what was to come. But the final six weeks – with winning the Challenge Cup final and losing the next three games, as you rightly point out the win at Huddersfield when Ryan scores in the final seconds – to get that and then go on to win at Old Trafford, a place that’s been very special to the Rhinos, was incredible.
How’s the change to rugby union with Yorkshire Carnegie. You’ve said it’s been harder than you imagined. Are you getting there?
Yeah, I’m getting there. I’m still learning, I’m still improving, I’m still picking things up about the game. But having said that I was still learning about rugby league every day when I was in that. So I’m making strides. I’m enjoying it. To be able to do it at 35 has been immense – to challenge yourself was a big part of it. I’ve made some great mates there – the team have been really helpful, supportive, embraced my switch. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I miss rugby league every day but I’m quite proud to say when I finish I’ll miss rugby union as well.
When the wall came down between the two codes and players and coaches could move between the two do you think they improved each other?
I think so. They’re very, very different games but the basics are still the same. You’ve still got to pass, catch, tackle and kick. Both codes have learnt and picked up a lot from each other at different times and different moments. Both games are excellent to play and I enjoy watching both too. There are a lot of people out there who want to compare the two but the tactical side – having played as a half back at rugby league and now at rugby union – is very different.
“Peacock was inspirational in what he was prepared to give the team.”
Who are the three most inspirational players you’ve played with or against?
Top of the list – but I’ve never managed to play with him or against him – would be Ellery Hanley, who was my hero. To watch him growing up, he was the person who really inspired me to play rugby league and be a number 13. He was a great player and leader and an absolute gentleman off the field. Ellery would be right up there. If I had to pick two others it would probably be Jamie Jones Buchanan, who’s my best mate in the game. We came through the ranks as 16 year olds and are still great mates today. We’ve had some great memories along the way together and if you could have one man in those trenches with you it would be Jonesy every day of the week. And probably the other person – I’m picking two warriors here – would be the warrior Jamie Peacock. Purely inspirational in what he was prepared to give the team. You saw the state of him on Monday morning, his body, but, especially in that final season, it was remarkable what he did to turn it around to be in tip-top condition to play on a Friday night. For somebody to go through that amount of pain to play is brilliant and obviously he had a brilliant career as well – he captained his country and went on to do some fantastic things.
What did coming so close to winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year mean for you and the game?
To have that exposure, to have someone from the sport nominated for the first time, was the greatest thing to come out of that evening. For rugby league to be in the spotlight, to be seen in a good light in the whole of the UK, was important for the sport. To be the guy singled out when you’re used to playing in a team sport was quite tough. I’m quite a shy bloke and it was a bit embarrassing. And off the back of a great year for rugby league – obviously the Leeds story was in and amongst it but the new league structure and the great England-New Zealand series win, which was very important for our game. So I was very humbled. Never for one moment did I think I’d come in the top three. I was just delighted to be nominated and it was a great experience.
Last time we spoke to you in the magazine was the start of the new structure and you’d expressed some concerns about the salary cap and the impact of the deep pockets of rugby union on the game. Did those fears get allayed or were they borne out?
I just think the structure worked. What the league was trying to create was some excitement right up to the last minute. I think they got that – we go right back to Ryan Hall scoring in the final seconds of the final league game. The slogan “every minute matters” stood the test of time. It created excitement – a lot of other sports’ league campaigns can be over weeks before the end of the season. The fact it was kept alive until the end of the season was great for the sport. What the salary cap has done is increase the competition and with that you get uncertainty of outcome. And as we’ve seen this year some big sides have been turned over by some of the lesser teams and it makes for a great competition.
“Concern’s the wrong word. Hopefully Leeds Rhinos can claw their way back.”
You must be concerned about the Rhinos’ plight at the bottom of the league at the minute.
I think concern is the wrong word. I have every faith in the lads. I know the quality they’ve got in there. I know the quality of person they’ve got there and I know how hard they’re working. I think they’ll fix it. It’s a very competitive and difficult league to start with. I think this new structure makes life a bit harder for everybody if you don’t get off to a good start. Hopefully they can claw their way back. Everyone’s jostling to get into that top eight, and within that to get into the top four, so it will be particularly interesting, especially now the weather’s beginning to change as well, to see how teams respond. As we’ve seen already injuries have played a big part, so let’s hope we can get proper squads out there for everybody and see a good competition.
Turning to the international game, is that England squad one that’s capable of greater success, and were you disappointed that coach Steve McNamara didn’t get his contract renewed?
Yeah, I think the squad has a bright future. We’re creating and developing some top class players who deserved their opportunities and did very well last autumn. It’ll be interesting to see how we continue to grow this year with the Four Nations and the World Cup next year. I truly believe in England rugby league – I was part of it for years and really enjoyed playing international rugby and was captain for a couple of years so I know the culture and the environment that Steve in particular had created. And that was what some of my disappointment was about – I knew where the group was going, I knew where the culture and the environment had been and where it was currently. I understand why they brought Wayne Bennett in. If you were going to change the coach he would probably be in everybody’s top three worldwide. I thought it was the wrong time to change. I believe in cycles and I think if you were going to change you should have done it after the last World Cup and not two years into a cycle when you’d bloodied a host of new young players who fit the bill. We’ll see. Like I said, it’s not a slight on Wayne Bennett. He’s one of the best coaches rugby league has seen.
What are your plans for the future. You told us a long time ago you wanted to make a trip to Cuba. Did you manage that? But also what about a future in the game?
I haven’t got to Cuba yet. I’ve been fortunate while I was playing to be able to study at Leeds Beckett Uni and completed a master’s in sports business last June so I hope to use that in some administrative role in the future in rugby, I hope, of either code. But it would be good at some stage to come back to rugby league. It’s a sport I know, it’s a sport I grew up with. It’s the sport that’s imbedded in my heart as well. At this moment in time I’m not quite sure – I’m enjoying the playing. We’ll see what happens.