The big interview: Kevin Sinfield raring to go with Steve Borthwick and the Red Rose

England's new defence coach Kevin Sinfield looks on. Credit: Alamy
England's new defence coach Kevin Sinfield looks on. Credit: Alamy

Kevin Sinfield’s reputation as a man of drive and passion precedes him.

A rugby league legend as a player, a fanatical fundraiser for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and his friend Rob Burrow, and an exceptional defence coach are just three facets of the man. But, above all, when you meet him, it’s his authenticity and honesty that are his most impressive qualities.

Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with Sinfield at the England training camp in Gloucester to understand what makes this man of steel tick.

Playing for the badge

“It was a really nice moment yesterday when I got to put the badge on for the first time. I was fortunate enough to represent my country in the other code, and I loved my time as an international. So to be able to put a different (England) badge on but understand exactly what it means was really special for me yesterday,” Sinfield said.

“To come and meet the players in Liverpool yesterday and to meet others here today has been wonderful because, in all my time in rugby, the connections and friendships are really important. I was able to catch up with the Leicester boys but also meet a load of fantastic new faces. It leaves me with an incredible excitement about what is possible this year.

“The talent available to us is wonderful, I could see the glint and sparkle in the players’ eyes and I’ve been really impressed with everything I’ve seen so far,” he confirmed.

Club to country

As Sinfield moves into a new environment, from club to country, he confesses all is a new experience. Was he surprised at the work ethic and talent standard within an elite England squad? And how did it all come to fruition?

“I wouldn’t say surprised. Over the last two days, I’ve realised how hard everybody works, from a management point of view behind the scenes – and how well the camp has been put together, albeit we’ve not been on the grass. The big thing for me has been the excitement of the players, coming into a “heat camp”, if you like,” he said.

“I’ve been an international myself, and I know how tough it can be at times going into camps and how tough it can be to mix with players after you’ve been trying to bash each other up for the last three months. All these players have come in and really interacted like team-mates – it’s really impressive.’

“Hopefully, it has come across that the opportunity to represent my country at anything has always been incredibly important to me. The process has gone on for a period of time with Steve Borthwick – it started earlier this year with the interviews and the short-list which was put in place.

“Throughout this year, I had one conversation with Steve, and it all moved very, very quickly – two weeks before Christmas leading into that Clermont game at Leicester. The people at Leicester have been wonderful with me. I loved working with the players, I miss them, and it was great to see some of them yesterday.

“That week it happened, as soon as I was granted permission to speak to the RFU, it moved very, very quickly because I wanted to do the job, I wanted to work with Steve, I wanted to work with the players, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity this year, and I get to wear a badge which means a lot to me to be here in such a short space of time,” enthused Sinfield.

Hard work

“I’ve worked really hard. I had a lot of holes in my knowledge, probably there is still a part of me that has to translate things across, but I don’t hide that fact, and I am happy to share it with the players. I don’t mind being wrong, but if that’s the case, I’ll work as hard as I can to make sure I’m not wrong again.

“I think it’s important to realise World Cups only come around once every four years. Some of these guys might not get another opportunity. Some of them might have had a taste before, and it’s not quite gone to plan. They might have been part of that last World Cup final, and then you have some new boys who may have experienced international rugby but don’t quite understand the enormity of what a World Cup can do and what it can bring.

“I recently spoke about the power of rugby and what it can do for communities and what it can bring, how it pulls people together. Actually, when you can be involved in a World Cup and understand what it can do for our community, our society – the players understand and that glint in their eye today is an excitement of being able to represent their country at something enormous. Yes, it’s in nine months’ time, and we’ve got Six Nations before that – and of course, there is an excitement about playing against Scotland.

“For me, national teams across different sports, there have been times when players have gone into camp, and found it difficult to be in there, and not been able to be themselves. Steve will show players how much he cares about them, and he’ll allow them to be themselves, and the players understood that from the last two days,” Sinfield noted.

Basics right

“One thing I have got from Steve is we will be brilliant at the basics, and that’s where we’ll start. We’ll give players clarity; we’ll make sure that players understand their roles and responsibilities when they take that field. We’ll make sure they believe in what they’d doing. I’ve mentioned two things already – but how they’ll fight and how they care about each other is going to be a big part of that, how we play but certainly how we defend.”

He added: “I am happy to be utilised wherever Steve asks or wants me to be. The great thing about our coaching team at Leicester is it was very fluid. At times Wiggy (Richard Wigglesworth) our attack coach, would help me on defensive stuff; I’d go and help him on some of the attack stuff. I love working with the goal-kickers; I was a goal-kicker in rugby league so being able to use that is something I’d been keen to – without overstepping the mark because kickers have routines, I understand kickers have worked with different kicking coaches too, so wherever I can help I will try and help.

“That’s probably stemmed from my last couple of years when I realised very quickly after my great friend Rob Burrow got diagnosed with MND that I wanted to help people and preferably being able to do that in a rugby environment, because that’s what I know- helping all around and supporting players to get better every day. If you’ve heard Steve talk before, he’ll talk about being better every day and improving, and if I can help players do that, I am doing my job.”

Defending the Sinfield way

In the modern game, the best sides now have a mindset of defending to score tries. Call it transition, call it defending to attack, but the segue between defence and attack has never been closer. The England assistant coach believes that coaches working in harmony rather than isolation is the key to success.

“What worked really well at Leicester was how close Wiggy and I were. We understood how important the transitions were. I want to build the same relationship with our attack coach here. Within that alignment is going to be really important how we play. Ultimately I played in a position where it was my job to ensure we scored points. So I understand how important it is that not only are we good defensively, but we score points, and we are a threat,” he confirmed.

“It’s both a mindset and a detail thing. We will give the players the clarity and understanding of what is expected in their role, and then we’ve talked about fight and care. Their part in this comes from delivering that magic bit that we will try and coach and help and support as much as we can, but ultimately you’d like to think when you’re playing for the badge, and you’re playing for each other, they’ll bring that bit. It will be a combination of the two.

“At the minute, I don’t want to be too cliched, but our focus is on Scotland – and I think it needs to be. But yeah, I’m genuinely excited about what this team can do. I’ve just sat in a room today and yesterday, when I’ve seen the quality of player we’ve got available. See the likes of Owen Farrell and George Ford working together. Unfortunately, Marcus Smith isn’t here today. You look at the quality we’ve got at 10, and you look at some of the other positions. It’s great to catch up with people like Ellis (Genge) again, who I had a wonderful friendship with at Leicester.

“We’ve got some wonderful players. I think it can be a really exciting year for them, and I think they realise that. I’ve mentioned what’s to come in nine months time, but we need to get each day right to make sure when we hit the ground for that first game, against Scotland at Twickenham, we’re ready to go.”

The roar

“Steve mentioned about getting the fans and supporters back behind, he mentioned about hearing that roar at Twickenham. He’s talked to me about lots of different experiences he had as an England player. It would be great if we could provide some of our players with those experiences too, because I know he had some real fond memories of his time.

“You probably aren’t aware of this, but I played at Twickenham back in 2000 myself in an England rugby league World Cup group game against Australia. It was a very long time ago, and Twickenham has changed a hell of a lot since then.

“Steve made that clear a couple of years ago, how proud he was and how he wants to get supporters behind this team again. I know it is a term that is not really used for England sides, but why not? I would love for us to be able to change that. I am certainly a passionate Englishman; I know Steve is and wants to do well for England. Rugby has the power to bring communities together, and hopefully for that first game, there is a huge crowd behind us that are passionately behind the team and where we are going.”

Coaching journey

“As a player, you get so much fulfilment from playing, and I did; I took so much satisfaction. 30 odd times a year you would get that feedback, then you stop playing, and you get back to normal life and maybe don’t then get those elements of fulfilment. I struggled with it for a couple of years. I was not lost, but I was trying to fill a void I didn’t think I could never fill again.

“Then I stumbled across coaching. I never wanted to be a coach, but I have really enjoyed my time at Leicester; working with players has been brilliant and has offered me the chance to help people, top and bottom. It has been so rewarding in so many ways, I am now able to get similar fulfilment from work, if you call it work, and that is what the challenges have done also. I have got a lot of fulfilment out of helping people, and coaching is certainly giving me that.

“I was coaching my eldest son’s rugby league team alongside two other guys, sadly one of them passed away two years ago, but I really enjoyed that. I was DOR at the Rhinos, but in an administrative role, I did a Masters in sport business I thought that was the route I needed to go down, I think with what happened to Rob Burrow, I just felt I needed to take some risk, and take on a challenge that, I have to admit, after the first couple of days, I thought to myself, what have I done? Can I survive? And then very quickly, with that support and care from Steve, the coaching team, players, very quickly, I started to get fulfilment from it, and I really enjoyed it,” smiled Sinfield.

“Before I came across to Leicester, I spoke to a number of guys about the transition from League to Union. I’d never met Shaun Edwards before I moved across to Leicester, we’d never crossed paths, apart from in 1994. I was a ball boy at Oldham, and Wigan had to beat Oldham to win the championship. Have a look at that championship-winning photo, there’s a little ball boy, and it’s me!” he chuckled.

“It was that great Wigan team, and Shaun Edwards is in that picture, so that was probably my first interaction with Shaun although he probably didn’t know anything about it. But I’ve spoken to him since a couple of times, seen the work that he has done, it’s incredible.

“Then you have Andy Farrell – I was fortunate enough to play alongside Faz in rugby league, 10 or 12 times, and loved it, he’s just such an inspirational guy, and what a player he was. Then if you look a bit deeper, Phil Larder. Phil was head of PE at my old high school, albeit before I joined. So in short, when I’ve had interactions with league guys who have gone across and been successful in union, they all speak so passionately and so fondly about their time in union.

“I’ve got a lot from all the conversations. Not everybody’s been a success when they’ve come across, but I’ve loved my time, everything I’ve found in rugby union, rugby lads are rugby lads, and my connections and friendships at Leicester in such a short space of time are as deep as any I’ve got in rugby league.

Family spirit

“Creating that family spirit – it’s really important going forward, I’ll mention the two words I’ve used throughout this, fight, and caring for each other. And we’ve got to bring both.

“You think of most good family units out there, you fight for each other and you care about each other – and that means some difficult conversations behind closed doors from time to time, but you don’t have those conversations because you don’t love or care about the person you’re talking to – you have those difficult conversations because you love and care about them.

“We’re all about performing. If we’d have come in these last two days and seen players who looked disinterested, didn’t have a spark in their eye and didn’t have an excitement about being here, we may have had to change our approach. But we haven’t. We’ve found a group that are really strong, ready to work hard for each other and are really excited,” Sinfield concluded.

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