GRAND FINAL DAY LOCKED IN | Three big fixtures next Sunday at Sydney's ANZ Stadium! Burleigh and Ill...
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Leeds' philosophical young leader has endured much heartache on the road to Saturday's grand final...
Whether he's talking about Che Guevara or Clive Woodward, revolutionary socialism in Cuba or his Oldham home resembling a Toys 'R' Us warehouse on his son's first birthday, Kevin Sinfield confronts the contradictory themes of his life with typical thoughtfulness. In the process the 25-year-old captain of Leeds strips away all those rugby league cliches which insist that such sensitivity has no place in the armoury of a man on the brink of leading his club to their second straight grand final triumph. Even a glance at the wounds on Sinfield's once-mocked "pretty boy" face underlines the contrast at work.
The old scar over his left eye is now overshadowed by a stitched gash across his puffy right brow. "It's only nine stitches," Sinfield blushes as he taps the tender flesh. "I got this one the week before the Challenge Cup final [in August]. It was a little cut but in the final it gushed wide open. In some games since then it split apart after only 10 minutes. What can you do? People get hurt in rugby league but the adrenalin takes over and you just get on with it."
A far deeper hurt has inspired Sinfield's best-ever season. It has its roots in the aftermath of last year's grand final - which saw Leeds narrowly beat Bradford, their bitter rivals, to end a 32-year championship drought. The pain which then followed feels even more vivid this week because the same two clubs will contest Saturday's showdown.
"Last year," Sinfield stresses, "I went from elation to despair. It was the biggest game of my career, and I was on such a high after becoming a father a few weeks before [in late September 2004]. I also knew how much the grand final meant to the whole of Leeds. When the hooter went it was one of the most special moments of my life. All my family were there, my little boy Jack was up in the stands, and down on the pitch my team-mates had tears in their eyes. You sweat with them, you bleed with them, you go through all kinds of adversity in the hope of a day like that."
The ecstasy did not last. Early on Monday morning, less than 40 hours after Sinfield had lifted the trophy to mass jubilation, he was alone when his phone rang. Brian Noble, Bradford's defeated coach, had assumed his national role in charge of the Great Britain squad. Noble told Sinfield bluntly he had been excluded from Britain's Tri-Nations campaign against Australia and New Zealand.
"That's all he said - he didn't explain why. I was devastated. I'd gone from the top of the world to rock bottom. He'd picked me for his first 40-man squad in the summer and I'd played for my country the previous three seasons, so it came as a complete shock. The only consolation was the six weeks I spent with [his fianc?e] Jayne and Jack - and I loved that because you can never get back those early months of his life. At the same time, whenever I had moments on my own, I promised myself I'd come back stronger than ever. I had an absolutely massive pre-season and that disappointment of being dropped drove me on all year."
Sinfield's career has been studded with such moments. He was dropped twice by Leeds on the eve of successive Challenge Cup finals [in 1999 and 2000] and pilloried for running the ball in front of the posts against Bradford when a late penalty would have levelled the scores in the 2003 final. Leeds suffered a similar fate this year when, losing 25-24 to Hull, Sinfield's last-minute drop goal attempt was charged down. "Life as a professional sportsman is a rollercoaster but being dropped for Great Britain hit me hardest because representing your country is the pinnacle. But I only needed to watch the news on TV to see that my disappointment was nothing compared to real tragedies in the outside world. It's always important, as a sportsman, to take that reality check. What does being dropped matter compared to famine, disease and war?"
This burst of social consciousness seems less surprising the more Sinfield reveals his political past. Even when explaining how he drew up his recent list of ideal dinner-party guests - with Che Guevara joining Roy Keane, Ellery Hanley and Peter Kay - Sinfield celebrates his parents' infatuation with the Cuban revolution. "People might take the piss but I've grown up with those beliefs. Che Guevara was my dad's hero and our house was full of Cuban posters. My parents went to Cuba, and I've got the same belief that socialism is better than anything. It's not something I usually talk about because it must sound hypocritical - me sitting here as a well-paid professional sportsmen. But playing rugby league doesn't stop me holding on to my ideals."
Sinfield describes his evocative childhood - with a small terraced house in Oldham turned into a Cuban shrine. Yet his parents were not seduced by the rebel chic posters of Che Guevara which have since hung on so many student walls. "The message and his writing mattered to my mum and dad. It wasn't something fashionable - not that many people in Oldham knew about Che Guevara. That's why it's so important to us. All our conviction comes from those Cuban days."
When asked if he and his father have to be restrained from kicking in the television whenever they see Tony Blair or David Cameron beaming down at them from some seaside party conference, Sinfield grins wryly. "My dad's got more interests now. He might have mellowed in the way he expresses himself but his beliefs are the same - and he likes what sport does in lifting up whole communities."
In the absence of the mighty Che, Sinfield looks elsewhere for inspiration. Old-school Cuban principles have no place in Roman Abramovich's blue revolution at Chelsea, but Sinfield highlights Jose Mourinho's wider significance. "There are a lot of people doing amazing things for others around the world but, in sport, I'd have to pick out Mourinho. Did you see him on that trip to Israel a few months ago? We all know it's a war zone but he went in there and spent time working with kids in football. He spoke about love and the importance of family and that was him spreading hope in a depressing situation. I think sporting icons like him can do a lot to lift up people."
Sinfield speaks with the kind of awe which suggests that, in between buying his new overcoat and carving out a Premiership and Champions League double, Mourinho could probably sort out the Palestinian crisis if we just let him get on with it on one of his free weekends. "Absolutely!" Sinfield laughs. "He gives you the feeling he could make people see sense. I can't think of one current politician who can do that."
More surprisingly, at least in ideological terms, Sinfield and Clive Woodward formed a mutual admiration society in 2001 - even if the emerging Leeds star eventually sidestepped the then England rugby union coach's urging that he should switch codes. Picked out publicly by Woodward as the brightest young talent in league, Sinfield admits to being "very tempted by union because the way Clive ran England was fantastic. That was proved by the World Cup win.
"I did think seriously about [switching] because whenever I spoke to Clive he gave me the belief I could do it. His main pitch was that if I was good enough he'd pick me, and the idea of playing in a team coached by him alongside Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson was very exciting. But I was only 21 and in the middle of negotiations with Leeds. I'm also very loyal and I felt I owed Leeds something -while realising I needed to do a lot more in league to improve myself as a player and a person. There are a lot more technicalities to union and I didn't think I was ready - especially as I've never played the game before."
The difficulties faced in union by Henry Paul and Iestyn Harris are a salutary reminder that not every league superstar will make quite the same impact as Jason Robinson. Harris, whom Sinfield regarded as his mentor when they played together at Leeds, will line up for Bradford against his old club this Saturday. "We talk often about his time in union. Iestyn loved playing for Wales but I think league was always his first love. I'm the same but I'm really interested in other sports, and that includes rugby union. I've got a lot more I still want to do in league - especially at international level - but in four or five years' time union will definitely be a possibility. I could see myself playing centre or fly-half."
Woodward by then, according to Sinfield, will be established as a Premiership football manager. "He's smart enough to do it. I wouldn't be surprised if, in 20 years' time, he's coaching England's football team." Mourinho, though, would surely cut a more convincing figure at the head of Sinfield's dream table alongside Guevara and Keane. "I can see that. I've certainly always thought Guevara and Keane would have hit it off big time. They've got the same kind of passion."
Brian Noble is not on the list of alternative dinner-party guests - even if he will probably make a different kind of call to Sinfield next Monday morning. When the phone rings this time it will, surely, be a simple case of the Bradford coach telling the Leeds captain that, after his outstanding season, he is back in the Britain squad for the upcoming Tri-Nations.
"I don't know what to expect," Sinfield says cautiously, "because I got it wrong last year. I just know that, whatever happens, I'll handle it as well as I can. And whether it's good news or bad I'll try to remind myself that, compared to most people in the real world, I'm lucky enough to make a living by playing a game."
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Donald McRae has been recognised as UK sports feature writer of the year. He writes for The Guardian, who we thank for this great article.