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Sinfield bow provides relief from the storm

16 November 2015
Sinfield bow provides relief from the storm
‘Relief’ is not a word often uttered by Kevin Sinfield, a man so focussed and driven that it is rare for him to approach anything without seeming to have 100% control over its outcome. ‘Nerves’ is another word not normally broached in a post-match discussion with the 35-year-old, but Sunday was not a regulation occasion, even if, through an act of God, it occurred at his beloved Headingley Stadium.

Sinfield, for once, could not control that, but given the protracted build-up to his Rugby Union debut, he spoke on Sunday of a palpable liberation from the narrative that focusses solely on him; although there is an irrepressible sense that this will continue, like it or not. Prolonged and torrential rain saw to it that the historic occasion of the ex-Rhinos’ long-awaited Rugby Union bow was a low-key affair – a 15-minute substitute cameo in a 32-10 victory before just 627 spectators - and a double-edged sword for both the Yorkshire Carnegie Cluband the player.

Just three weeks of intensive training after the euphoria of the Rhinos’ historic season-end had died down, had brought Sinfield up-to-speed and finally ready to flick the switch from the 13 to the 15-man game. He travelled with head coach Bryan Redpath’s team to Bedford last weekend but was left out of the match day squad, despite his itchy feet.

A weekend away, and the intensity of a full-blooded Championship occasion, helped Sinfield fully acclimatise himself and start to build the trust and honesty on which critical on-field relationships are formed.; although the last second penalty that robbed Yorkshire Carnegie of victory – having lead 21-0 midway through the second half – was a blunt introduction to the harsh reality that he isn’t joining a side quite so adept at game management as the one he has just left.

Sinfield has seen the more appealing side of last second victories in recent weeks, but Carnegie’s failure to capture top spot in the Championship table will have to go on the back-burner for the next fortnight, as the Headingley side ease their new star in gently via Pool 3 of the British & Irish Cup.

The ex-Rhinos’ high profile bow at his natural home was scheduled for November 27th, when the Club return to league action versus London Welsh. The ex-Premiership side would have attracted a sizeable crowd themselves, but Sinfield’s hotly-anticipated Union debut at Headingley was expected to perhaps double the 1,900 average crowd which Carnegie attract to the famous stadium, with many Rhinos fans keen to get their close season Friday night fix and cheer on their departing hero.

Such a crowd should still materialise, but the historic circumstances were somewhat robbed from the occasion by a weekend of biblical downpours. Like their sister club Leeds Rhinos, Yorkshire Carnegie are adept at marketing their games to the wider rugby-going public, and one initiative is to play some “on the road” games throughout the season. One of these was to see the Club play Ospreys Select at Huddersfield YMCA’s Laund Hill ground on Sunday afternoon. It was deemed a suitably modest and understated stage upon which to unleash Sinfield’s embryonic Union career, but Sunday morning brought a swift re-think and Headingley Carnegie – a pitch and environment that Sinfield knows every inch of – stepped in accommodatingly at the last minute. Sinfield’s post-match comments suggest that, on this occasion, he probably allowed himself a satisfactory smile at the prospect when he heard the news.

The match itself was also a hospitable occasion given the circumstances. After the second-half capitulation at Bedford last week, Redpath made a dramatic 12 changes to the starting line-up. These included the replacing of fly-half Harry Leonard with Joel Hodgson, who Sinfield himself would later replace on 65 minutes, highlighting the stiff competition for places that now exists.

Carnegie raced into a 12-0 lead after just 13 minutes, and 19-year-old Josh Bainbridge continued his astonishing recent try-scoring run, crossing twice to take his tally to nine tries in the last eight games, including a record five-try haul in the defeat to Bristol Rugby last month. Carnegie lead 24-3 at half-time but a scrappy second half ensued, with Ospreys receiving the customary half-time ‘rocket’ and making a better fist of the second 40 minutes. With Carnegie’s Dean Schofield in the sin bin, Ospreys reduced the arrears with their only try of the game, but with a comfortable 24-10 lead Sinfield was introduced to a raucous ovation from the sparse crowd braving the elements.

In truth, the conditions favoured the gentle introduction the new fly half would have wanted. His handling was sound and he wasn’t tackled with any intensity, he combined well with Bainbridge and nearly set the flanker up for a hat-trick try late on. But in customary fashion, Sinfield took on the kicking duties immediately without a moment’s doubt, scoring a penalty and an historic first three points with a central kick at the Western Terrace end, to huge cheers, despite the unaccustomed and sodden emptiness of the surrounding stands. He missed a tough touchline conversion in the final minutes after Taylor Prell had crossed for the last score of the rain-soaked day, but on-the-whole, pretty much everyone was satisfied with the day’s events.

You would expect this Friday’s British & Irish Cup tie away at Munster to see Sinfield receive more time on the pitch, building up to a potential starting spot versus London Welsh at Headingley seven days later; and with Carnegie sitting tantalisingly poised in second place in the Championship table, with three defeats from nine games, you would not bet against Sinfield having the galvanising effect that follows him around pretty much every walk of his life.

Watching him in post-match interviews following Sunday’s Union debut, Sinfield was quick to namecheck the raft of people who have helped him get to this point at a gallop, and he swiftly offered credit to teammates to try and deflect the attention from himself. That is the inherently selfless nature of the man; and while Carnegie management, as a professional sporting outfit, and the man himself, may wish to downplay his influence compared to more established and experienced players, Sinfield’s presence and passive authority is undeniable; a totem and a provider of special things. That is why he is here; now watch him do it again.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.