Born in Lancashire and a Rugby League hero in Yorkshire, Kevin Sinfield is one of British sport’s modern greats.
Oldham-born Sinfield captained Leeds Rhinos through the greatest period in their history, leading them to seven Super League titles, the world championship and league leaders’ shield three times and back-to-back Challenge Cup final successes.
He polled more than 250,000 votes to finish as runner-up to Andy Murray in the 2015 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award – he calls it “the icing on the cake” – the first time a rugby league player had ever been nominated.
Kevin Sinfield, now 35, ended his league career last October, at the end of a season when he skippered Rhinos to a domestic treble of trophies, and he switched codes to Rugby Union as a pro with Yorkshire Carnegie, a sister club of Rhinos, in possibly his last season as a player before changing careers.
He has looked back on a remarkable rugby league career in a book written in collaboration with Yorkshire sports journalist Peter Smith, who has known him for 20 years or so. Rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson pays tribute to Sinfield in the book’s foreword. Only two players have scored more points than Sinfield since the sport was founded 121 years ago, and noone has made more than his 520 Super League appearances.
His book details all the highs and lows of almost 20 years at the top, including why he turned down big offers from Wigan and Warrington to join Leeds, how he almost called time on his England career before being named captain, the truth behind the only red card of his career, the agony of five cup final defeats before finally getting his hands on the trophy at the sixth attempt, and his views on the modern game and players he turned out both with and against.
“My career finished in October, and I put the book together with Peter in November, December and January,” he says. “It gave me a chance to reflect on my career, some the highs I’ve had in Rugby League and certainly some of the lows. I don‘t shy away from the lows. It documents pretty much all the major events, good or bad, and it’s been a really good thing for me to do.
“There were times when I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, like losing in five Challenge cup finals and losing the semi-final with England in World Cup 2013. Then I look at last year, 2015, when we went on and won the treble, and it was a great ending for everything. Thankfully I’ve had more good times than bad and I’m very, very fortunate for that.”
About his Sports Personality vote, he says: “It was the icing on the cake. I think to have rugby league on that level is something I was immensely proud of, and to be nominated was incredible.”
Kevin Sinfield proudly flies the flag for Rugby League, for long considered Rugby Union’s rough working-class cousin who broke away back in 1895.
“It’s a sport that doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves, in newspapers and parts of the media, but it’s growing it’s getting better.
It’s always been very strong in the heartland in the north of England. It’s improving and making strides and if we look at the competition as a whole last year, it was great with Leeds winning the treble, England winning the series against New Zealand, and record crowds at last season’s Magic Weekend, the game’s in really good health.”
He reckons the advent of Super League 20 years ago has been the biggest thing to happen to the game he loves. “The professionalism it brought gave players the chance to play full-time as a job, and at the same time the game moved to summer rugby. All these changes have had a real positive effect on the game, and that’s why it’s such a great spectacle now.
“If you look at a lot of Super League teams, they’ve been born out of traditional working class towns and cities, and the game’s always been in touch with the community. That’s what made Rugby League such a family sport. The players are still very much in touch with the people who pay on the gate and stand on the terraces.”
A Lancashire lad by birth, Sinfield cut his teeth on junior rugby there and represented the Red Rose county as a lad. Nevertheless, he says he was accepted pretty quickly by his team mates and fans at Leeds.
“Being from Oldham, and the Saddleworth end of Oldham, I’m not far from the border anyway. But I am very proud of my Lancastrian roots. I was always proud as a kid to represent the Red Rose and grew up enjoying that aspect of competition against Yorkshire.
“I often say that Oldham is my town but Leeds has been my city, and I’m very lucky that I’ve been adopted over there and really well looked after, and the support I’ve had has been incredible.”
Sinfield’s switch to Rugby Union came as a shock to League followers, but it’s something he wanted to do to round off his career.
“It’s a huge challenge, but very enjoyable. It was something I felt I wanted to do before I went out and got a real job. When you’ve turned 35, to still have a sporting challenge like the one put before me for Union was a massive motivation, so I’ve gone across and had a crack.”
Sinfield has prepared for life after playing by studying for a sports science degree at Beckett University, Leeds, and returning there to study for a Master’s in sports administration. “I’ve tried to prepare myself as best I can. I’d like to get into in sport administration, hopefully in some code of rugby, and we’ll see what happens.”
Sinfield’s two sons have inherited their dad’s love of the game, playing for Saddleworth Rangers, and Dad loves watching them.
His advice for any youngster starting the sport: “Follow your dreams. What’s stood out in my career more than anything, and the thing I’ve learned the most, is about attitude. If you’ve the right attitude towards anything you can make it work and become a success at it. Give it everything you’ve got and you can make good things happen.”
Kevin Sinfield: My League Years in Words and Pictures, Great Northern Books.