“He never fails to deliver,” said Wigan star and Golden Boot nominee Sam Tomkins, talking about Kevin Sinfield’s captaincy on the BBC Super League Show that was broadcast nine days before Christmas.
“He always delivers,” said Leeds star Rob Burrow on the same programme, this time talking about Sinfield’s goalkicking, which has played such a key part in delivering some crucial victories for the Rhinos in 2012.
And, when you think about it, “he always delivers” isn’t a bad description of the qualities that should define the winner of a Golden Boot.
Sinfield has won the Boot in 2012 because, let’s face it, he always delivered, especially when it counted.
And he delivered after he had played the entire season with a broken left wrist.
Earlier this year I was talking about the Leeds and England captain to Australian legend and double Golden Boot winner Darren Lockyer.
“You look at his record and it’s phenomenal,” said Lockyer of Sinfield, as he went on to enthuse about the England and Leeds captain in glowing terms.
And Lockyer found the question of whether Sinfield would be a success in the NRL slightly laughable, insisting that he would be one of the leading stars in the NRL and quite possibly the best captain in that competition.
Lockyer’s view typifies that of many of Australia’s leading players, who all recognise Sinfield’s outstanding qualities.
On the other hand though, Kevin Sinfield is such a self-effacing leader that he often doesn’t generate the same high regard from British Rugby League supporters.
He diverts praise away from himself, and is reluctant to talk about his own achievements, much preferring instead to focus upon the teams he leads.
Sinfield often talks about the culture of the Leeds club, and the way that individual players at the Rhinos can identify totally with each other’s desire to be the best there can be. He is a totally selfless leader, which is a rare commodity in sport and, for that matter, in society as a whole.
It’s worth bearing in mind that if Sinfield had played Rugby League in, say, the 1920s or 30s, he would by now have been regarded as one of the finest, if not the greatest player to have ever played the game, and he would without doubt have been one of the inaugural members of the Rugby League Hall of Fame.
After all, which other captain has led his team to the title of Champions six times in nine seasons? Sinfield is easily the most successful captain in the history of the Leeds club and probably the game as a whole.
Recognised greats from the past, like Hall of Fame members Jim Sullivan, Jonty Parkin and Gus Risman never came anywhere near to winning trophies on the scale that Sinfield has achieved.
And it isn’t just trophies.
Sinfield is also a points machine. He is now ninth in the list of all-time career points scorers, with 3,440 points, and within the next two seasons he is likely to have moved up to third place in that list, behind only Neil Fox and Jim Sullivan.
Earlier this year he became the greatest points scorer in the history of the Leeds club, overtaking the legendary Lewis Jones.
How the Boot was won
We should remind ourselves, however, that the Golden Boot isn’t awarded to a player because of his achievements during his career as a whole. It is awarded for his performances in the year in question, in this case 2012.
So what has Sinfield done to deserve the Golden Boot in 2012?
Quite simply the Golden Boot is given to the best player in the world.
So let’s examine why Sinfield can lay claim to that title in 2012, and in particular why he deserves it over the other five shortlisted candidates: Ben Barba, Cooper Cronk, Nate Myles, Cameron Smith and Sam Tomkins.
There is no doubt that some of those players have certain qualities that out-rate those of Sinfield.
Sinfield can’t move as quickly as Barba, for example, or with the elusiveness of Tomkins, while Smith’s ability close to the ruck is surely second to none.
But only Smith can rival his leadership. Whereas Sinfield led the Rhinos to the World Club Challenge and Super League titles, and England to victory in the (admittedly uncompetitive) Autumn International Series, Smith led Melbourne to the NRL title, Queensland to the Origin title and Australia to two victories against New Zealand.
But Smith’s goalkicking isn’t as good as Sinfield’s, whose success rate in 2012 was 82.84 per cent, compared to a success rate of
69.64 per cent for Smith. In the NRL play-off series Smith’s goalkicking was unreliable, and in the Grand Final he was only able to land one conversion of three tries. In the Super League Grand Final Sinfield kicked five out of five, from all over the pitch, and that after he had been knocked out by a challenge to the head from Warrington’s Michael Monaghan.
But Sinfield’s kicking game extends far beyond goalkicking.
How many times have we seen him this season put a perfectly placed kick into the corner for one of the Rhinos’ wingers to catch and touch down.
He did it at a crucial time in the World Club Challenge clash against Manly at Headingley, when, as reported in League Express, “Sinfield’s meticulously measured lofted kick to the left saw Hall steal in between David Williams and Lyon to catch it clean to snaffle a terrific score.”
And then, as if to demonstrate the range of his kicking skills Sinfield placed a perfect grubber for Carl Ablett to score the final try to deliver a 26-16 victory to the Rhinos.
But what he did in the Super League Grand Final goes beyond what could reasonably be expected, even of a Golden Boot winner.
Twice injured, with sickening clashes that epitomise the sport and which would have had most in the 70,000-strong Old Trafford cauldron running off to hospital, he simply shrugged off those knocks.
The first, a groin injury, came from his bravery, as he dropped to the ground to pick up a loose ball. He was caught as he attempted to regain his stride by a joint tackle from Ben Westwood and Mickey Higham.
The second was a sickening clash of heads, which saw him knocked out by the challenge of Michael Monaghan after he had kicked high into the Manchester night air.
On both occasions he just got up, shrugged his shoulders, got on with his own game and set an example for his colleagues to follow.
After the game he denied that the head-clash had marred the game for him.
And that epitomises another quality that marks out great players.
Almost unbelievable courage and toughness!
Rugby League had used the word ‘extraordinary’ in its slogan to advertise the play-offs. That description is surely the right way to describe Sinfield’s performance in the Grand Final, when he gained 27 of the 33 votes cast by the media for the Harry Sunderland Trophy winner.
It was an overwhelming vote that was overwhelmingly deserved.
Kevin Sinfield is only the fourth Englishman to win the Golden Boot, after Ellery Hanley (1988), Garry Schofield (1990) and Andy Farrell (2004).
Congratulations Kevin, you truly are a most worthy winner.
(Article first published in Rugby League World, Issue 382 cover dated February 2013)