“I DON’T see myself as the best player in the world, at all, anyway.”. Well, there’s that question out of the way…
A-List is sitting in the Café Bar at Headingley with Kevin Sinfield, the captain of England and –as of January – holder of the Golden Boot for, well, er, the best player in the world.
Until being handed the award, 32-year-old Sinfield had probably only heard and read nice things about himself. He’s spent his entire career at Leeds, won six Super League titles, is the highest point scorer in his club’s history and got man of the match in last year’s grand final.
Players with resumes like that aren’t used to being derided. But after missing out on all of Rugby League World’s magazine’s positional gongs (he’s equally at home at five-eighth or lock), Sinfield was still given the Golden Boot by the magazine.
The judges who picked the best player in each position played no role in selecting the recipient of the boot. But suddenly everyone had to have an opinion on Sinfield’s worth – and most of those coming from south of the equator were not complimentary.
On one hand, he points out that he didn’t ASK for the award. On the other, he says the slaggings-off have not soured the honour in any way.
“I’m pretty cool with the whole thing,” says Sinfield, a quiet and thoughtful man but far from humourless. “To go on and win it has been pretty surreal. I was really surprised to win it.
“It’s a funny one, really. I think it’s more – in my case –recognition of what the team’s done over the past few years. If people want to have a crack at that, I’m big enough and old enough to cop that.”
The reaction from Australia, Sinfield says, did not surprise him one iota. “The last time a British player won it was 2004 and Andy Farrell, he got a similar response.”
As the quote at the top of this story indicates, the award has not given Sinfield the confidence that comes with being deemed world’s-best anything, nor has it made him more determined to “prove his critics wrong”, as the cliché goes.
“Team awards mean far more to me. I’d swap it every day of the week for a World Club Challenge win or a grand final win or – ever better – a World Cup win.”
BUT why, exactly, was Sinfield’s selection so controversial?
He once placed 63 matches straight, was man of the match when Leeds beat Melbourne in the 2008 World Club Challenge, he also won man of the match in the 2009 grand final and can be seen calmly guiding the Rhinos around the park – while throwing himself into the tough stuff at every opportunity– any weekend of the northern hemisphere summer.
The answer to the question is, probably, that he is not deemed to have “proven himself” at international level.
This is where things get interesting.
“I suppose after the 2008 World Cup, I had a big decision to make,” he says. “My international career hadn’t gone how I’d have liked it to have gone.
“I found it difficult fitting into the set-up and playing how they wanted me to play. It was always different … I’m not making excuses but some of the things they wanted from that type of position, loose forward, at the time … I couldn’t provide, I weren’t big enough.
“I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to put myself through it anymore. I wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of it and the reason I play the game, ultimately, is that I get so much from it. I wasn’t getting anything from it at all. I wasn’t learning anything, it weren’t good for my family being away. I’m not sure how close I was. It was certainly something I thought about, I thought ‘do I need to keep putting myself through all this heartache?’.
“I’ve struggled to fit in before. Certainly in the early years, we had Farrell and (Paul) Sculthorpe who were very dominant at six and 13. I think, moving forward we tried to follow what a lot of NRL teams did in terms of the lock, as you call it, being more of a front row type. I’m only 90 kilos wet through. I can’t do what a Paul Gallen does. They’re better of picking someone else. “
“….in the last couple of years with Steve McNamara being in charge, he just asked me to play how I play for my club. And when you’re given that sort of responsibility and allowed to play a certain way, I think it’s a good fit.”
Most of us expect Sinfield to captain England in the World Cup. He doesn’t. “If I’m the best man for the job, brilliant. If not, I’ll stand firmly behind whoever is in charge.”
ON the morning ‘Sir Kev’ became our first A-List subject of the year, The Australian reported that Wigan’s Sam Tomkins was being offered to NRL clubs.
Sinfield himself almost joined Manly in 2002. He says the British game simply can’t afford an increase on the current Stg1.6 million salary cap and if that means players leave, sobeit.
“IWith the strong dollar and what’s happening in rugby union, they’re obviously going to attract one or two Super League players.
“Although Sam would be a huge loss to our competition, first and foremost we need to keep him in rugby league. If that meant he went to Australia, it would but a tough thing to take but it’s better than him going to rugby union.”
What is the overall state of the game in Britain? A wry smile. “Unfortunately, we ain’t got three hours to go through it all.
“It’s been difficult, as we’ve seen, with your Bradfords and your Salfords (going broke). A successful World Cup would do some great things for our game – not just funding-wise but participation-wise and sponsorship-wise.
“Some of the negativity does concern me – not for my future but for the young lads coming into the game now. I have some concerns for them. Hopefully, through a successful 2013, we can provide a bit more security for those boys.”
To compare the studious, focused Sinfield with the more untamed likes of Ellery Hanley, Malcolm Reilly, Rocky Turner and Dick Huddart is to chart the evolution and gentrification of the game. Sinfield is a product of his age … but do Test players still hate?
“It’s hard to compare it to 10, 20 years ago,” Sinfield answers. “The professionalism now and the science behind it all, it’s taken the game to a new level. I wouldn’t say we hate Australia or New Zealand but when you talk about 40 years since we won a Test series against the Aussies, it shows you what we’re up against and I think we really enjoy playing against Australia.”
Then there’s this. “I sense that it’s more Australia having a crack at the Poms, as you call us. Perhaps that needs to change a little bit. Perhaps we have to be just as fiery and just as fiery back
“… probably the banter. I think on the field, it’s certainly intense and fiery. I don’t think there’s the punch-ups like you used to have but the game’s changed a little bit, hasn’t it?
So is he saying the English will be carrying on like Anthony Mundine come October? A smile. “If I’m honest, I don’t really know what I’m saying. I’ve never thought about it like that.”
If England are going to get mean this spring, it’s unlikely their captain will be leading the vitriol. But affability should not be mistaken for weakness.
When Kevin Sinfield recently went to the club dentist, he waved away the painkilling injection. “I don’t see the point of having an injection for five minutes’ drilling,” he explained.
The dentist then assumed this was normal for rugby league players and tried drilling the teeth of Sinfield’s team-mates without anaesthetic. They were horrified.
Sticks and stones, dental drills and names? You’ll never hurt him.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK