We speak to four people who have played a part in the prop’s journey to England star
The making of Kyle Sinckler
Harlequins tighthead Kyle Sinckler has fast become a mainstay in Eddie Jones’s first XV and is playing a significant role in England’s World Cup bid in Japan. Here we talk to four people who have been part of Sinckler’s journey from a junior player at Battersea Ironsides to a Test Lion in New Zealand to get an insight into the 26-year-old from those who know him best…
Stacia Long helped a teenage Sinckler to set up a rugby team at Graveney School in South London
“Kyle was one of three or four boys in his year group who played rugby outside of school and were keen to set up a school team. I told them I didn’t know anything about rugby so wouldn’t be much use from a coaching perspective, but Kyle said, ‘That’s fine. Me and the boys will sort that if you can find fixtures and get us there’. He would have been about 13 and what struck me was his willingness and ability to overcome problems.
“We didn’t have enough boys from one year group, so we’d choose boys from the year below. Then more kids got interested and rugby in the school started to grow. We saw turnarounds in behaviour because they had an outlet; they could be physical on the rugby pitch rather than the playground.
“We didn’t have a pitch on site so we’d play matches against other state schools on public parks or at rugby clubs. We did a bit of training, but only on a 30m by 40m bit of grass and not very often. It was things like learning to tackle safely. Kyle did a lot of that – the boys who could play helped others.
“He would flit between positions in games. He’d start at fly-half and then there would be a scrum and he’d think, ‘I could be useful here’. So he’d go to prop and then back to fly-half. Playing multiple positions helped develop his game understanding and ability to bring others into the game. He had a good skill-set for someone of his shape and size. He’d have been used as a battering ram by some schools but he couldn’t afford to be like that for us. I switch on the TV now, see his soft hands and think, ‘That’s the Kyle I know. That’s what he’d do for us’.
“Rugby is his love, his passion, and what stood out for me was he knew where he wanted to get to and would make sacrifices to do it. He showed such maturity. All his friends would go to parties on a Friday night, but he’d be getting ready for a game on Sunday. It showed how important rugby was to him.
Related: Downtime with Kyle Sinckler
“The media have given him this reputation as the bad boy of English rugby. People talk about him losing control, but I think it’s a fine balance of a young man pumped up to be as physical and aggressive as he can, but then expected not to react when people do or say things to him.
“If you look at the demographic of rugby, how many people fit into his category of mixed race, single parent, non rugby-playing school? There are probably another 20 Kyles in or around inner London who don’t feel like they belong and still look at rugby as a white, middle-class sport. Celebrate what Kyle has achieved; use him as a role model.
“When Kyle was 16, he got a scholarship to Epsom College. Other boys saw you could come from a school like Graveney and get a scholarship to an independent school and that motivated a lot of them. By the time I left the school in 2017, we had a team in every age group and a girls’ team. That’s the legacy of Kyle playing rugby.
“It put me on a new path, too. I started my coaching qualifications when we set up that team and now work at Trinity School where rugby is the main sport and I’m director of rugby at Old Ruts.”
Collin Osborne spotted Sinckler in an U12s game and got him involved in the Harlequins and Surrey set-ups
“My son was playing for KCS Old Boys and Kyle was playing for the opposition, Battersea Ironsides. He was playing very well at full-back and centre – very good hands, very competitive, very physical, quick off the mark. He didn’t have sustained speed but the damage was done in those first five metres.
“It was his belligerence that most impressed me. Every Sunday morning I was following my son around and I’d see a lot of good players, but he stood out physically and with his belligerence.
“He was incredibly competitive and wanted to win every hit. At U12 level that was an unusual quality, to have that degree of desire to win – and that is very difficult to coach. You usually don’t see it until U15s, when puberty kicks in and boys become very competitive.
“That first game I saw him play, there were a few confrontations and he was at the heart of them. He was obviously talented but he got frustrated in games and wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I told him he had potential to do good things if he learnt how to control that aggression; it wasn’t about losing aggression but harnessing it. I said, ‘Come to the club with me and let’s see what we can do’.
“At the time I was academy manager at Quins and the EPDG (Elite Player Development Group) sessions started at U13. Surrey also had a set-up for boys who didn’t go to rugby-playing schools. They would work on skills as well as conditioning. He used to do weight training in Crystal Palace with Keith Morgan, who’d coached GB Olympic weightlifters. He took to that very well.
“I think it was a coach at London Scottish U15, where a group of them moved, who suggested Kyle move to prop. I remember them playing in North London one Sunday and I got him on the scrum machine afterwards, showing him where to put his feet, etc. I said, ‘Become a decent tighthead prop and you can write own cheque!’ He fancied himself as fly-half or centre, but tightheads are worth their weight in gold.
“Kyle has always been driven. He commits. He prides himself on his physicality and getting him to work hard in the gym has never been an issue because he sees the correlation between that and physical performance.
“He still has moments when he’s losing control but if he recognises it, he’ll know to do something about it. When he doesn’t recognise it, he gets himself into trouble. It’s all heat-of-moment stuff. It’s all very well in calm environments to see the logic in what people are saying. It’s doing that when the pressure is on.
“From a coaching point of view, you look at whether the downside outweighs the good he brings and the reality is he does so many good things. He has wonderful qualities that few others have.”
Graham Rowntree has worked with Sinckler with England, Harlequins and the 2017 Lions in New Zealand
“England took him to New Zealand in 2014 and he played well in the midweek game against the Crusaders before the third Test. That was my first taste of him. He then went off the radar for a bit and came back on the scene after I’d left England. Eddie Jones got him involved and took him to Australia in 2016 and I joined Quins at the end of 2016, so I was then working with him every day.
“I loved working with him, for Quins, for England and for the Lions. He’s incredibly enthusiastic, is very diligent in the gym and with his prehab. He’s a sponge for knowledge – that is one of his greatest attributes. He’s a bit of a rugby nause, too, and would come up to ask me for stories about the ABC club (Leicester’s front row). He’d tell me what he’d heard about Darren Garforth and Richard Cockerill before.
“He can be too enthusiastic at times and that can creep into his game, but he’s still a young man and has only established himself as a starter for his country over the last season. He still has a lot to learn tactically and that comes down to experience. He plays the game with real energy and with experience he’ll learn to curb that sometimes, but you don’t want him to change that aggression he brings.
“Tighthead is a position where you have to experience different props against you, different pressures mentally and physically. You have to experience those things to learn how to cope with them. He does get targeted but it’s learning how to deal with it; you can only do that through experience and listening to the people around you.
“He has great mentors in Adam Jones at Quins and Hats (Neal Hatley) at England. Joe Marler’s taken him under his wing too. He’s learning off all three.
“Over the past couple of years his scrummaging has come on more than anything. Scrummaging-wise he gets in an incredibly low position. I noticed that with the Lions (in 2017). Teams were trying to attack him and get under him, but they physically couldn’t because he was so low. He’s strong, squat, gets very low and you can’t move him.
“He does a lot of things that other props don’t do, too. Outside of the set-piece, he has a high tackle count and is an aggressive tackler. He’s not afraid to nominate himself to carry ball and Quins use him as a ball player off short lineouts, similar to how Saracens use Mako Vunipola in the middle of the field. He gives a well-timed pass, and we’ve all seen his explosiveness when he has the ball. He can finish a line break, which a lot of props can’t. He’s one of the best tightheads in the world and has the ability to get in the top three.”
Joe Marler has played alongside Sinckler in the front row for Harlequins, England and the Lions
“The first time I was aware of Kyle was seeing him and George Merrick pointing at the camera in an U20s’ Six Nations game. I noticed because that’s exactly what I was like, a gob****e. I thought, ‘I might have my hands full, a contender for the biggest k*** at the club’.
“He was actually quite respectful with me (when we met). I used to train early on my own and he asked, ‘Is it okay if I train with you? If it’s good enough for Joe Marler, it’s good enough for me’. I told him not to set his ambition so low!
“He often gets a bit misunderstood. He can be quite a handful, but that’s how passionate he is for the sport. He does have a reputation and he can live up to that at times, but he’s matured pretty quickly in the past 18 months if you look at how he’s been with England. The more exposure you get at that level in a starting position, the quicker you grow up. He’s doing that and England are starting to benefit from it.
“His biggest strength is people don’t think he has an understanding of the game. He’s aggressive and physical, and people think he’s just all-out passion and abrasiveness – but he’s not.
“He’ll tell the backs, ‘This is a decent move to try’ and I’d think, ‘Hang on, you’re a tighthead prop’, but if you listen to what he’s saying he makes a fair point. He’s definitely underestimated.
“He wants to be involved in all the big moments; he’s not happy just to do the dog work and just do what every other tighthead does. Now he’s doing the nuts and bolts – those cliché words – as well as the X-factor stuff around the park.
“The more exposure you get against top-level looseheads and questions are asked of you, the more times you come up with solutions and adapt. He’s now had experiences and is improving in that area. In him and Mako (Vunipola), England have the best loosehead in the world and potentially the best tighthead. Tadhg Furlong is up there now because of his out-and-out scrummaging ability as well as everything else, but Sincks is not too far off. England could have the two best props in the world soon.
“My favourite story about Sincks comes from the Lions tour. Gats (Warren Gatland) had been saying pre-tour he was looking for X-factor, do something out of the norm. Playing against the Provincial Barbarians in the first game, we were jet-lagged and hanging 55 minutes in, looking to get more control in the game. We got a penalty on halfway and everyone was thinking, ‘Do we put it in the corner or go for three?’ Then Sincks took a quick tap and ran off. He got isolated and turned over.
“I asked him, ‘What the hell was all that about?’ He said, ‘Gats is looking for X-factor.’ He was then hauled off and seeing his face as he went off I thought, ‘Poor sod’. Fair play, though, maybe it was X-factor because he was picked in the match 23 for the Tests!”
This article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Rugby World magazine.
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