Sinfield has moved to Twickenham from Leicester Tigers alongside Steve Borthwick
Analysis: How Kevin Sinfield defence tactics can transform England
Borthwick has been appointed head coach on a five-year deal with Sinfield following him to Twickenham as one of his assistants. The RFU sacked Eddie Jones after seven years in the wake of a dismal Autumn Nations Series that begun with a first home defeat to Argentina in 16 years and finished with the players being booed off the field following an uninspiring display in the 27-13 defeat to South Africa.
Sinfield captained Leeds Rhinos to seven Super League titles in his playing career but switched codes to play fly-half for Yorkshire Carnegie in 2015-16 before retiring. Sinfield was the Rhinos’ director of rugby before joining Tigers ahead of the 2021-22 season when he helped guide them to the Premiership title.
Edwards, a rugby league legend who won it all with Wigan in the 1990s, coached Wasps to Premiership and European glory before bringing the blitz defence to Wales from 2008 to 2019, winning three Six Nations Grand Slams before securing another with France last year following his move across the channel in 2020.
“For me, Shaun Edwards is the best defence coach of his age, you can’t argue the success France had in the Six Nations wasn’t down to Shaun,” explains prop Charlie Beech, who played under Edwards at Wasps and alongside Sinfield at Carnegie.
Is Sinfield the new Shaun Edwards?
“They have always been an attacking threat but to suddenly have a defence that could stand up to it and match them was incredible. I think Kev can have the same effect on England but in a vastly different way as they are very different people.
“I have a lot of time and respect for both; they have that hard-nosed edge that is traditionally found in rugby league and rugby union benefits from it in defence.
“I hope he has the same effect on England as Shaun has had, I’m a far better defender having been coached by Shaun and teams are much better teams and I think the same will be true of Kev wherever he goes frankly.”
Jon Wilkin spent over a decade going head-to-head with Sinfield while playing for St Helens and concurs that while the Leeds icon and Edwards go about things in completely contrasting ways, they could end up having the same outstanding results.
“Shaun Edwards would want you to be ripping trees up as you run out the tunnel but Kevin Sinfield would be 100% less aggressive in his approach but different styles work,” says Wilkin, now a rugby league pundit for Sky Sports.
“I believe Shaun Edwards brought a defensive intensity to Wales rugby union that they hadn’t seen and changed the way in which Wales defended. I imagine Kevin will look to bring some of that to England but there will be a measured side to it too.
“It won’t be all about passion and emotion and physically dominating teams. I’m sure the way Kevin will set England up to defend is one where it balances aggression and smarts.
“He’s similar in his stature in the game of rugby league to Shaun Edwards but they could not be more different characters. It is chalk and cheese. They might have similar outcomes and a rate of success but the methods that both of those guys go about it will be wholly different.”
Wilkin teamed up with Sinfield for England at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup and believes his level-headed nature helped him ice the big moments as a player.
Sinfield’s emotional MND fundraising
However, Wilkin thinks he has seen a new emotional side to the 42-year-old since his former team-mate and great friend Rob Burrow was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2019, sparking Sinfield into action with hugely inspirational running challenges that have raised millions of pounds for the cause.
“I imagine a large chunk of what Kev will be doing is mentoring, guiding and influencing the culture of the team in the right ways,” adds Wilkin. “I wouldn’t have associated Kevin Sinfield with being that warm, emotional guy but I’ve seen that in him in his journey supporting Rob Burrow and MND.
“Kev and Steve Borthwick may have been perceived as being similar and tactically astute but maybe not overly warm and emotional so to be successful in the England camp, Kevin may well have to take that role on and I’m sure that’s something he can do.
“It’s so early in his union coaching career, so the fact that he’s got that job and seen in such high regard in such a short amount of time, it tells you two things: One, Kev’s workrate and his application to his job has been exceptional and two, he brings something else that Steve Borthwick couldn’t and he’s done that very well for Leicester Tigers so it’s an exciting appointment.”
By the time Sinfield arrived at Welford Road, Borthwick had already taken Leicester from 11th to sixth in the Premiership in the space of a season but together they helped one of rugby’s great powerhouses return to the top of the tree for the first time in nine years.
Jaco Taute, a centre capped three times by the Springboks, joined Tigers in 2019 before retiring at the club in the summer and believes the culture they created was central to their subsequent success.
“They are two top-quality coaches. They are brilliant in what they do, especially in terms of team culture and aligning everyone and the goals of the team,” said Taute, 31, who is now studying ahead of a move into the financial world back home in Pretoria, South Africa.
“The way we trained and prepared for games was just incredible, they are up there with the best coaches I ever had in the game and I was fortunate to be coached by a lot of good coaches.”
Former England full-back Mike Brown accused Eddie Jones of creating a culture of fear in his Mail on Sunday column but Wilkin believes Sinfield will take a softer approach.
“In contrast to what you heard about the Eddie Jones regime, to be a good coach you’ve got to build upon kindness and empathy,” suggests Wilkin. “I always have believed that good coaching comes from that place and without having been coached by Kevin, I can imagine that is what he will bring in bucketloads.”
“He’s very humble which is insane given what he’s achieved”
Humility is a recurring theme when you ask people to describe Kevin Sinfield.
Whether it was his willingness to chat to anyone on the long bus journeys up and down the country during his season at Carnegie or his desire to be a rugby union sponge when starting his role with Tigers.
“He’s very, very humble which seems insane given the guy he is and what he’s achieved,” explains Beech. “A lot of the lads from Leeds were in absolute awe of him but he really is just a humble bloke and a family man who will sit and talk to anyone.
“I think he will thrive and I think it’s the right call (to go to England). As someone who is looking forward to watching England in the World Cup, I think they will go further with him than without him. It’s that simple.”
Beech’s testimony about Sinfield’s first taste of rugby union chimes with Taute’s experience of his initial move into the backroom staff in the sport.
“Kevin is just such an overall great bloke, he gets along very well with the players on a professional basis and he’s an incredibly humble guy, he always downplays what he’s achieved,” explains Taute.
“We knew it was his first gig in rugby union and he was willing to learn a lot from the players and still instil what he wanted to achieve on the field. He is incredibly hard working as is Steve, their work ethic is incredible.
“They both complement each other really well in how they want to play the game overall. They make it very simple and easy for you to go out on the field and perform.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that Sinfield’s ability to effectively convey defensive messages comes from his years spent whacking people in the 13-a-side code, but that is not how Wilkin sees it.
“Ironically, if you were to assess his skillset when he played rugby league, defence was probably the weakest part of his game,” he says.
“It was often Kevin’s attacking ability that made him stand out in the big moments of big games. He’s not a player you would associate with being an exceptional defender. He was competent but it was never his strength.
“Having said that, when it comes to coaching, sometimes being deficient in a certain area leads you to understand it more and gives you an ability to articulate it to people who might not understand what defensive attributes you need from your players.”
Kevin Sinfield defence tactics for England
But what will an England defence coached by Kevin Sinfield actually look like?
“It will be aggressive, you can see that from the way Leicester have defended,” insists Taute.
“It won’t stray too far from what has worked for him in the past, it will be aggression and pressure focused. I always loved defending aggressively and it was incredible to see how the younger boys took to the defence in training.”
Having lined up alongside Sinfield in a rugby union defence, Beech reckons his former colleague can bring greater coherence and a relentless nature to England without the ball.
“The current England side have aggression and standout hitters like Courtney Lawes but keeping that system and moving people backwards over and over again until they kick the ball away, I think will come through under Kev,” he explains.
“It’s that commitment to every single hit. You are never aiming for a soft tackle, or looking to get onto the next thing. Every single time someone runs at you, you make them know that was a bad idea and that there’s no weak link in that chain.
“There’s an extra aggression to that style of defence and if you add that into the set piece dominance the boys already have then it will open up the attack and I think that will really change England’s World Cup prospects to have Kev involved.”
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