The England defence coach is both a people's champion and a prophet of doom. As his punchy new book makes clear, more than anything he is willing to suffer for a cause
Kevin Sinfield, a man in a million
As a rugby league-playing youngster, Kevin Sinfield was selected for Lancashire U9s. But not in the starting team. He went all the way to Hull and back to get five minutes on the pitch. He vowed never to let that happen again.
The following year at county trials, Sinfield was allocated to the weaker of the two teams. “We played three 20-minute blocks and I spent the whole hour playing as well as I could but also encouraging everyone around me. I was dependent on everyone playing well for me to get me where I wanted to go: the Lancashire starting side.”
Most of that trial side subsequently got picked for Lancashire – and Sinfield was made captain. He went on to lead Leeds Rhinos U19 at the age of 16 and the first team at 22. He wore the armband for 13 years and also captained England.
Union followers not familiar with Sinfield’s league career will learn plenty from his recently released autobiography, The Extra Mile, published by Century. Written with Paul Hayward, it charts his career in the 13-man code and his extraordinary fundraising efforts for motor neurone disease (MND). Thanks to comprehensive BBC coverage, his charity runs have probably earned him even greater fame than his rugby.
Of his union career, playing or coaching, he has little to say in his book. Doubtless he feels that he has yet to achieve much in union, notwithstanding his part as defence coach in Leicester’s Premiership title and rapid promotion to the England ranks.
He wanted to quit in his first week at Tigers, telling Steve Borthwick he wasn’t coming back. He felt bewildered by all the different tactics and systems, by the complexity of the scrums and the “esoteric new world” of the rucks.
Sinfield ended up staying, of course, and earned the respect of all. He regards a soft performance as one of rugby’s worst sins but there is no relentless smashing into each other in training. Rather, it’s about quality over quantity, short blocks of defence work using tackle shields. “A couple of good technical tackles, then move on,” he says.
His union playing career amounted to a few games for Yorkshire Carnegie in 2015-16, that was it. He had been courted in 2002 by Clive Woodward, who saw him as an inside-centre and perhaps a fly-half further down the track. But Sinfield decided against switching codes. He was only 22 and wanted to win trophies in league.
He was to become a league legend: 521 games for Leeds Rhinos, a 13-year England career, 14 Great Britain caps, seven Grand Final wins, appearance and scoring records galore, runner-up to Andy Murray in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, even the first RL player to appear on Desert Island Discs, when he chose a self-propelled treadmill as his luxury item.
His stance on head injuries and concussion is powerful. He was knocked out cold twice as a player but, in reference to the ongoing legal action by former players, says: “I’m not inclined to retrospectively challenge a sport when I’m not sure the sport knew the risks or consequences. The medical science – or evidence – wasn’t necessarily there.”
Going further, Sinfield offers some shuddering thoughts on the threat to contact sports. “I’m not sure about rugby’s longevity. For a young player the question becomes: do you want to spend the best part of your twenties chasing a dream that could collapse at any moment?
“My worry is that in 20 years there’s no rugby left and society has a much bigger problem with, for example, obesity.”
The fear that rugby could one day cease altogether as a contact sport has not been expressed before by someone of Sinfield’s standing. It is the elephant in the room and now one that has been acknowledged.
If thoughts of young people growing fat and idle in a rugby-less void is rather depressing, the reader’s mood is lifted by Sinfield’s remarkable charity work for his former team-mate Rob Burrow and the MND community.
Sinfield was present at an end-of-season dinner where Burrow slurred some of his words in a speech. He thought Burrow was drunk. When the same thing happened at another event soon after, with Burrow unable to say words with an ‘s’ in them, like ‘solicitor’ and ‘necessity’, he knew something was amiss.
Once the dreaded MND diagnosis was confirmed, Sinfield pledged to raise enough money to ensure Burrow’s family would be looked after and he set a deadline of the following Christmas. But he hadn’t reckoned on Covid, so suddenly he was in a jam. How could he raise money when people couldn’t even gather together?
As we know, he hit upon running seven marathons in seven days, a figure revolving around Burrow’s shirt number. The aim was to raise £77,777 and that seemed fair enough given he couldn’t even advertise the routes (in Saddleworth and Leeds), but by the end of day one he had £100,000 and by soon after the challenge £2.7m. Most of which went into front-line services for the MND Association or research into finding a cure for this cruel disease.
In 2021, Sinfield followed the 7 in 7 with The Extra Mile – 101 miles in 24 hours, Leicester to Leeds. A year later he did the Ultra 7 in 7 – seven ultra marathons in seven days, Murrayfield to Old Trafford. That’s 276 miles of road, at an average of about 40 miles a day.
He says commitment and determination and perseverance were part of his make-up as a player. He was tough too – he played his last Grand Final win with a broken hand. We know the human body can adapt remarkably to physical stress but these runs were gobsmacking distances, bonkers challenges to normal folk.
And he did them whilst holding down an important job. One day he rose at 4am, left at 4.20am, drove from his home in the borough of Oldham to Leicester, did a day’s work, drove home and ran 61km as preparation for his next challenge, finishing at 10.30pm. Gee whiz!
And here again, another insight into Kevin Sinfield: that he believes physical sacrifice is the basis for success in team sports, that players have to go that bit further than the opposition are willing to. The Apex of Pain, he calls it, a term he picked up from a documentary on marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge.
And Sinfield wanted to suffer on his runs as MND victims have to suffer. “I wanted Rob to know I was willing to do anything for him.
“I met so many people in the MND community whose stories and pain were horrific. I wanted them to smile in my discomfort. I wanted it to give them a glow inside that our team [he had two fellow runners for the Ultra 7] were willing to go through hell too.”
His sacrifice has raised millions for MND, £7.5m at the last count, but more than that has helped bring the disease into the mainstream, has prompted people with symptoms to go to their doctor, has helped victims realise that they still have a life to lead.
In that, he has picked up the torch from the great Doddie Weir, the much-loved Scot who died from MND 13 days after Sinfield had seen him at Murrayfield at the start of the Ultra 7.
During The Extra Mile, one MND sufferer got a taxi from Loughborough to Leeds at 4.30am in order to ring the bell for the start of a stage. He gave Sinfield a cuddle and wouldn’t let go.
That is the mark that Sinfield is making. Across the country, across the world.
“If the coach is willing to run whatever distance he has to run to fight a disease, why shouldn’t players run hard for 80 minutes?” he asks.
“Steve [Borthwick] understood that too. And deep down I think he knew the MND work helped me as a person and as a coach. The connection with Rob makes it so much easier when I’m asking players to look after one another.”
Kevin Sinfield: The Extra Mile is published by Century, RRP £20
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