Kevin Sinfield: ‘We’ve got a wonderful opportunity this year’

England’s new defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, worked with Steve Borthwick at Leicester Tigers from 2021 to 2022
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

Kevin Sinfield has achieved national recognition for his fundraising efforts in the past three years, the Leeds Rhinos legend having raised over £7m for Motor Neurone Disease charities following his former teammate, Rob Burrow, having been diagnosed in 2019.

Already a rugby league legend, the 42-year-old can well and truly be described as a household name and in his day to day profession as a rugby coach has excelled too. Leaving his post as Rhinos’ Director of Rugby in 2021, Sinfield linked up with Steve Borthwick as Leicester Tigers’ defence coach in the Gallagher Premiership.

Within a year Tigers were Premiership champions, all the while Sinfield was running marathons and having an impact off the field too. Announced as joining the England men’s setup alongside Borthwick on Christmas week, it was clear that the new England head coach wanted to bring his trusted right-hand man alongside him for so much more than coaching an effective defence.

“To have Kevin there [at Leicester] has been brilliant for me,” Borthwick said. “I talked about what he embodies and how the players want to play for him. You’ve got a guy who has done what he has done as a player, then just as a person, as a human being.

“He challenges me, makes me think, questions me. And to have that as a head coach, that’s just brilliant. That’s brilliant, because it will make us a better coaching team.”

That day at Twickenham Stadium as the Rugby Football Union’s PR bandwagon of a ‘new era’ under Borthwick beginning, Sinfield was not present. Instead he chose to be at the funeral of former Scotland and British and Irish Lion Doddie Weir who passed away in late November after a five-year battle with MND.

It was totally in keeping with the character we had become accustomed to seeing on early morning television, putting himself through the ringer by running multiple marathons to raise money for a former teammate and friend who had stood alongside him as Leeds ruled rugby league for well over a decade.

An England international in the 13-man code, Sinfield spoke to media on his first week of hands-on work. Taking charge of fitness sessions in Liverpool and then Gloucester, the new coaching group put 45 players through their paces as the Guinness Six Nations’ collision course continues.

He only put on his new work clothes the day prior and describes having the red rose sit above his left breast as “really special”, the 42-year-old in a similar boat to Borthwick in having begun conversations with the RFU earlier in 2022 before signing on the dotted line in December to be part of the England setup.

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

“Throughout this year we [I] have had one conversation with Steve about it 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 the players 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.”

In Sinfield, it’s clear that England have a coach who is something of a Swiss Army knife. Yes, he knows how to put together an abrasive and tough to dissolve defence, but he will bring plenty of heart to inspire players and, when asked, says that he would even help out with the kickers if needed.

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He walks into an environment where all hands may well have to be on deck. It was confirmed by the RFU on Monday that forwards coach Matt Proudfoot had departed the team, as has consultant Danny Kerry and Brett Hodgson, who never actually coached England.

Richard Cockerill and Martin Gleeson, to date, maintain their forwards and attack coaching positions, and whether to not Borthwick will instate any other coaches to the collection is unclear. 

With nine games until the Rugby World Cup in France, it is going to be a stern challenge for the quartet, although they certainly have the mindset to be successful.

When asked about his comment on things happening quickly, Sinfield talks about ‘fight’. Whether it is to do with Rob Burrows daily battle with MND or seeing similar values with how Steve Borthwick conducts his business, it has inspired the man from Saddleworth.

“Rob’s faced this horrific disease and I realised I needed to find more challenge in my life,” Sinfield said. “So very quickly, I knew I needed to go and do something else. The opportunity at Leicester presented itself, which I jumped at.

“I didn’t have any idea at that stage I’d find myself here in 15, 16 months time. If you’d have told me, I’d have to pinch myself. It’s been an unbelievable journey, working alongside Steve and the staff at Leicester. I’ve loved every single minute of it.

“A couple of things I’ve got from Rob about fight; people I have been able to surround myself with over the last couple of years have been real fighters and they also care about the people around them. Rob’s inspired me in so many different ways and it’s probably a large reason why I’m here today, because without that horrible news I’m not quite sure I would have come down this path.”

“And now I bring Steve in here. He’s a guy who’s had a huge influence on me in the last 15 months, probably a bit longer than that since we started to have every brief chats about me joining Leicester. Steve has got those two qualities that I’ve just mentioned.

“You know he’s a fighter, you know how hard he works, you know he’s obsessed with winning, you know how diligent he is. The bit you probably don’t see is how much he cared and to be able to work alongside somebody who cares as much as he does – and I’ll give you an example of that.

“During my last challenge, which was seven ultras, I got a text off five people every single night. My wife, my two boys, Rob Burrow and Steve. Steve was right behind everything we were trying to do and people don’t hear that or see that. But he cares as much as anybody I’ve been around.

“And now to be able to work alongside that with our national team, to work with the quality of player we’ve got, it is really, really important to me to be alongside someone who fights like he fights, but cares like he cares as well.

“And to be here in such a short space of time, I’ve worked really hard. I have got a lot of holes in my knowledge and probably still a part of me has to translate things across. But I don’t hide that face. I’m happy to share it with the players. I don’t mind being wrong, but if I’m wrong, I will work as hard as I can to make sure I’m not again.”

Much like Borthwick, Sinfield dazzled on his first outing as an England coach. It became quickly apparent what the rugby league legend brings to his new role, and much like Christmas week, it is difficult not to get excited about what the future holds.

He charms with almost every response. The 42-year-old even recalls his own outing at Twickenham Stadium in 2000; a 22-2 loss at the hands of Australia in front of just 33,000 at a World Cup.

Each of the pair has outlined that they will be themselves and will bring to the table the exact things that made Leicester a roaring success once again. With a short timeframe to establish a new culture and make a team that endured a dismal 2022 winners again, it will be hard going, although Sinfield believes that the quality is there and so are the right coaches for players to put their trust into.

“I think it’s important to realise World Cups only come around once every four years,” Sinfield said. “Some of these guys might not get another opportunity. Some of them might have had a taste before, and it not quite have 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 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 a Six Nations before that – 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.”