Friday night’s Greene King IPA Championship game with London Welsh at Headingley is being billed as Sinfield’s public unveiling, having so far made a low-key 15-minute cameo versus Ospreys in a British & Irish Cup game, switched to Headingley at the last minute due to weather conditions, followed by 80 minutes in the same competition’s 14-9 defeat to Munster A. The nuts and bolts of the game with London Welsh is that Carnegie need the points to keep pressure on Bristol at the top of the table – who they trail by one point – and after the diversion of the cup competition, which provided Sinfield with a gentle introduction to life in the 15-man code, the bread and butter of the league will provide the platform on which to truly judge the early stages of the Rhinos legend’s transition.
Last time out in the league, Bryan Redpath’s men suffered an agonising 22-21 defeat to Bedford Blues, where a last second penalty dealt a savage blow when Carnegie had led 21-0 earlier in the second half. A perplexed Redpath reacted by making 12 changes to his starting line-up for the Ospreys cup game, and a further four in their second Pool 3 game at Munster, and it was a young side with whom Sinfield took to the field to complete his first full game as a Rugby Union player.
Certainly you would expect established, big game players like Josh Bainbridge, Ryan Burrows and Jonah Holmes to return for the clash with ex-Premiership side London Welsh, but given the build-up to the game there will be a lot of fans trickling through the turnstiles to watch Union for the first time, who will leave disappointed if they don’t catch a full 80 minutes of the new fly half by the name of Kevin Sinfield.
Last Sunday’s full debut for the 35-year-old ex-Rhino was a difficult occasion in which Carnegie trailed throughout the game. Sinfield kicked three penalties successfully, but amidst those, missed two critical ones that could have won the game. In driving wind and rain it was an excusable, if uncharacteristic, blemish on Sinfield’s kicking record. However, you can rest assured he will have been harshly critical of himself and will look to learn from it, and Carnegie fans should expect Sinfield to become increasingly influential with each game he completes and the more minutes on the pitch he accumulates.
The reality of this Friday’s historic occasion is that Carnegie need to get back to winning ways in the league, and the game with London Welsh is an accommodating opportunity. Welsh have endured an uncomfortable start to life back in the second tier, and currently sit ninth in the table with a record of four wins and five defeats from their nine games so far. Two of those defeats have come in the last two league games before the break for the British & Irish Cup. They also lost their first game in that, 28-21 to Cornish Pirates. Their last outing saw them trailing 29-7 to Cardiff Blues Premier and staring down the barrel of a fourth consecutive loss in all competitions, but a dramatic second half fightback saw them triumph 33-29.
It is the kind of psychological boost that Bryan Redpath will be preparing his players for as the league campaign re-starts on Friday, but the Carnegie hierarchy will be counting on the occasion of Sinfield’s full Headingley debut lifting their side accordingly.
After a deliberately modest and understated start to life as a Rugby Union player, it will be a relief for Sinfield and the Club’s management to get the game and the sense of occasion out of the way. However much Carnegie want Sinfield to put bums on seats and galvanise those around him with his aura, kicking skills and unparalleled game management, the novelty value is a distraction in itself, and the sooner everyone can accept that this is who Sinfield now is, the sooner his influence can positively come to the fore.
On an historic note, Sinfield will become the tenth player to taste league action on the Headingley pitch in both codes of the rugby game, all since 1996 and mostly as a result of the Union game going professional. The run was started by Tongan international Sateki Tuipulotu, and other notable stars for both Leeds RL and Union are Liam Botham – son of cricket legend Ian who starred so famously on the other side of the Headingley complex – and Australian centre Graham Mackay, who was arguably the most successful influence on both clubs when he arrived first at the Rhinos in 2000.
More recently, of course, Josh Walters, scorer of the treble-securing try at the Old Trafford Grand Final, started his rugby career in the Carnegie academy, but switched codes to join the Rhinos without making an appearance. Off the field, while Sinfield already knows every nook and cranny of the Headingley ground, he will be comforted, no doubt, by the sight of former Rhinos winger Francis Cummins, who acts on the coaching staff of both clubs.
It all combines to demonstrate the close-knit nature of the sister clubs, and perhaps prompts the question why there aren’t more personnel connections between the two? Maybe Sinfield’s Union career – by far the most high-profile dual code switch between the clubs – will pave the way for more? But right now, Sinfield will be keen to get Friday out of the way and begin to blend in with the crowd, while quietly making the kind of impact he has proved he can make, time and time again.