League Express writer Aaron Bower looks at the mammoth task that is facing Leeds Rhinos when their captain, Kevin Sinfield, heads for rugby union – and sums up the legacy Sinfield will leave behind.
It’s a question that will face every sporting club at some point during their existence, especially in Rugby League. Warrington had to do it with Lee Briers recently, and St Helens also had a tough task on their hands replacing the likes of Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe.
How do you replace a club legend that has given so much to a team on and off the field?
That’s the challenge that will now face Leeds Rhinos in around six months time, when, for many Leeds fans, the unthinkable will happen: Kevin Sinfield will leave the club.
Replacing Jamie Peacock will be tough enough, but the task of replacing the club’s all-time leading goal and points scorer, as well as the greatest captain in Leeds’ history, is certainly a tough ask.
Not only is Sinfield a walking, talking record compendium all on his own, but he’s a talisman. He’s a leader. And to Leeds fans and the wider Rugby League community, he’s a legend.
In some ways, finding another captain will be a tougher ask than going out and finding a scrum-half to step in and fill the shoes Sinfield will leave behind – that task has already been achieved, to be honest. His influence and impact on Leeds throughout some of the club’s pivotal moments is what makes him the leader he is – and why he’s referred to by Leeds fans as “Sir Kev”.
From the 2012 Grand Final when he pulled himself up from the floor and out of unconsciousness to inspire Leeds to a win against Warrington, or him leading the team towards finally ending their horrific Challenge Cup hoodoo, some of the Rhinos’ greatest achievements in the last 15 years could not have been done without the impact and influence of Sinfield. The club are perhaps fortunate that players such as Danny McGuire will remain to help the transitional period – had they lost the bulk of their golden generation in one swoop, this would have been a tricky path for Leeds to navigate.
Sinfield openly admitted at his press conference yesterday that the Challenge Cup win probably had a bearing on him calling time on his career in RL – and whilst some would call that selfish, it’s maybe more of a realization that he has conquered every domestic hurdle with Leeds, which is a fitting ode to such a wonderful player.
Fully aware of his legendary status at the club, Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington hit the nail on the head yesterday: “If any player in the history of our club deserves the right to choose when he moves on to the next stage of his career, it is Kevin Sinfield.”
And in fairness, Sinfield does indeed have every right to move on, and the timing of it is perhaps best for all parties. Sinfield’s new challenge will suit him, and he is not the type to be defeated by any obstacle which is put in front of him. As far as rugby union is concerned, Sinfield will be just fine.
Plus with Liam Sutcliffe emerging as a certified Super League player in Sinfield’s absence recently, there is perhaps also a sense that the club have another young talent who will break through and establish himself as a regular in the years to come.
“The Rhinos have been known for blooding youngsters for a number of years, but we’ve been specifically blooding juniors, in particular Liam Sutcliffe, for this type of day,” said Rhinos coach Brian McDermott yesterday.
It may have come a season sooner than they planned, but the club can take heart from Sutcliffe’s development in 2015. He is ready when the time comes.
For now though, it is about enjoying the final few months of one of the most decorated careers in English sporting history. Every goal he kicks and every try he creates between now and the end of the season will be cheered with a realization that there will not be many more following.
Respected by his peers and adored by his fans, there can be little doubting Sinfield’s place amongst the game’s greats. It has been a pleasure to watch him throughout his career, and it has been an honour to see him play in the flesh so many times.
Leeds are not just replacing a fine half-back. They’re replacing a captain and a Rugby League icon.