Martyn Sadler talks to the winner of the 2012 Rugby League World Golden Boot.
“UNREAL,” was Kevin Sinfield’s reaction to the news that he had been awarded the Golden Boot by Rugby League World for his near-perfect year in 2012, making him the fourth English player to receive the game’s ultimate personal accolade since it was first awarded by Open Rugby magazine 28 years ago.
“The Golden Boot’s the biggest individual award in world rugby,” said the Leeds and England captain. “If you look at the list of players who’ve won the award. There’s some all-time greats in there, Wally Lewis and a big hero of mine Ellery Hanley to name two. To be only the fourth Englishman on there is a massive, massive honour – to join that list is unreal.”
Sinfield’s heroics in the 26-18 win over Warrington in the Super League Grand Final, when he recovered from a groin injury and a crack to the jaw that laid him out to lead Leeds home, prompted BBC presenter Clare Balding to describe him as: “The most impressive sportsman I have ever seen”, and having fronted coverage of the Olympics for the BBC last summer, she had just seen plenty of top athletes in action.
“It’s really humbling,” said Sinfield. “What she’s done for Rugby League, with her commentary on the BBC, has been fantastic. To have someone who’s been involved with so many different sports at a really high level to say those things about you is fantastic.”
It took the international retirement of clubmate Jamie Peacock earlier last year for Sinfield to be given the captaincy of the national side, a role he has fulfilled magnificently for the Rhinos over recent seasons, culminating in 2012 in a sixth Super League title in nine years, to add to the World Club Challenge trophy won in February.
“It’s been a really enjoyable year,” he said, “to get to play with so many fantastic, world-class players with England and Leeds.
“Ultimately I only go out and try to do the best I can but when you’ve got players alongside you who make sure they play at their best every week it makes my job a whole lot easier, I’ve got everyone to thank for it.
“I’ve really enjoyed the year. There have been some tough parts throughout, namely stuff like the Challenge Cup final (a 35-18 Wembley defeat to Warrington). To lose five of them is not easy but it doesn’t stop you trying.
“The end of the year has been surreal. To say that we’ve won the Grand Final from fifth, to go on and captain England and then get this award it’s just been amazing. There’s some great sides out there. Warrington, the way they’ve been building and the win they had over us in the Challenge Cup final meant everyone saw them as favourites (for the Grand Final). Our form in that last month – starting with Wakefield at home and then going to Catalan and going to the DW and beating Wigan – we got some momentum and we did it the hard way again.
“In the second half we went behind again against Warrington but thankfully as we’ve shown a number of times the group is full of incredible characters and they don’t know when they’re beaten. To play alongside the likes of those guys makes it all the more special in the end when we come through.”
Sinfield’s contribution in beating Wigan at the DW Stadium in the Qualifying Semi-final was also huge and it was symbolic that his boot knocked over the two points that gave Leeds a 13-12 win.
“It was a really enjoyable game,” he recalled. “I remember so many people after the game saying what an advert for Rugby League and ultimately that’s what we all want. We all want to build our sport and the fact that games like that can have that sort of influence has been fantastic.
“It was always going to be tough. We had two really difficult play-off games before that, especially travelling to Catalan and flying straight back. We know that logistically it’s caused teams problems this year doing that, so to then go the DW and have Danny McGuire missing – which meant we had to juggle things round again – I thought the team was outstanding on the day.
“The momentum we gained from that game at Wigan kicked us on again going into that final.
“Every individual award I’ve won – man of the matches and things like that – I rely on 16 other guys to perform as well as they can.
I’m not the flashiest of the players, not the quickest or the strongest. I rely on the likes of Jamie Peacock to do these things for us – the same with Rob Burrow and the rest of the group. I need them to play well for me to play well.
“It’s a funny one because ultimately we are a team and the team awards are the ones that count. The club and the team I play for need to take some of those plaudits because I am around today because of a whole lot of people.
“I’ll cherish this trophy because I know what it means but I think the group will hopefully be able to share in some of that because they fully deserve to – both with England and Leeds. The contribution those players have made to help me get this award and the coaching staff of both those two teams – I owe a lot of people a lot of things and I feel very fortunate.”
This year, the year of the 14th World Cup, is set to be a big one for Rugby League, and could also mark Kevin Sinfield’s biggest year of a glittering career. After 41 years, another England/Great Britain World Cup win is not unthinkable, and Sinfield’s indubitable leadership skills will have to come to the fore to achieve it.
“We’re building as a group, the belief’s there, we’ve just got to go out there and ultimately do it,” he said. “There’s some water to go under the bridge between now and next October – a couple more camps together, maybe another Exiles game – and I think the group will go from strength to strength. We’ve got a great opportunity.
“Steve McNamara’s got to take a lot of credit for what he’s built and what he’s put in place. All the other Super League clubs developing young talent have been fantastic. The pool of players we can pick from now, including the NRL-based boys – there’s probably 50 players who could start in any of those World Cup games. The carrot’s there for every one now, every English eligible player, there’s a massive opportunity to play in a World Cup at the end of the year on home soil.
“We’ve seen the impact the Olympics has had this last year – we’ve had some fantastic individual performances from British athletes – and you see how it inspires people to go out and do different things. Hopefully through Rugby League next year we can inspire a whole new generation – not just kids, but people – to get involved with Rugby League. The only way we can do that is by winning and performing as well as we can and I believe we’re going in the right direction.
“Sometimes in life you don’t realise you’ve got an opportunity and it goes and it’s too late. I think we all realise what’s in front of us now and the sort of strides the game could make on the back of something great next November.”
(Article first published in Rugby League World, Issue 382 cover dated February 2013)