Kevin Sinfield reflects on his and a couple of his team-mates’ last wembley appearance. Peter Smith reports.
WEMBLEY IS known as the venue of legends and one will bid it farewell this weekend.
Leeds Rhinos’ record-breaking captain Kevin Sinfield is preparing for his final appearance at the national stadium, in Saturday’s eagerly-anticipated Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final against Hull KR.
Sinfield will leave Rhinos at the end of the season to try his hand at rugby union with their sister club Yorkshire Carnegie.
That will bring to an end a glittering career, during which he has experienced the highs and lows of rugby league’s most prestigious knockout competition.
Sinfield has gone into every Challenge Cup tie this year knowing it could potentially be his last, but the fact it all really is coming to an end now is only just beginning to sink in.
That is a significant storyline as far as the media is concerned, but for Sinfield personally, he is trying not to get caught up in all the emotion.
That approach worked last year when Rhinos won the Cup and he’s hoping it will do so again.
“I have got to be honest and say it has probably been at the back of my mind,” Sinfield said of the fact Saturday will be his last Challenge Cup tie.
“Because of how we approached it last year and being so relaxed about it, I felt that was the only way to go this year.
“No doubt I will put more thought into it as the game approaches, but as things stand, it is certainly going to be special.
“I know how many games I have got left with the club – or at least how many games there are available to me if we achieve everything we want to this year. I want to get the best out of all of them and I want to make the most of the time I have got here and give it my all and that includes Wembley.
“Last year we were so relaxed about it and I think that helped everybody. I think that is the way we have to go again.”
Sinfield is a veteran of the big occasion. His Leeds career includes six Challenge Cup finals already, all as captain and he will set a record for most times as skipper in the knockout showpiece this weekend.
He has also featured in seven Super League Grand Finals, winning six of them – again, all as skipper.
On top of that, he has lifted the World Club Challenge three times, from six appearances and the league leaders’ shield twice.
But Sinfield insists he never gets bored of the big occasion and every time he walks out in front of a huge crowd, he savours the moment.
“I know what it is like when you walk out in those big stadiums and there’s 70-80,000 people there,” he said.
“I know we will take massive support down to Wembley this weekend and I know how much it means to everybody, again.
“And on top of that, to still be in this position – at the end of August – with everything still to play for, I can’t remember a year quite like it.
“We have got to try and make the most of the opportunity we have.”
So, while the sport’s slogan of every minute matters has been widely derided this year – Leeds having qualified for the Super-8s semi-finals with four games remaining and Hull, Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves effectively out of the running – that really is true for Sinfield. He said: “I will certainly be looking forward to every game.
“I love playing at Headingley and some of the away grounds I have been to, the last time will be pretty special and I look forward to going to all of them.
“I looked forward to going to Hull last Friday, knowing it was probably going to be my last-ever game there. I am looking forward to what’s to come over the next few weeks.”
Sinfield is not the only Leeds legend in the swansong of his career at the club. Jamie Peacock will also leave at the end of the year, to join Saturday’s opponents as football manager.
And Kylie Leuluai, Rhinos’ most successful overseas recruit, will hang up his boots following the final game of the campaign, to take up a new role behind the scenes at Headingley.
For Leeds, the ideal scenario would be to send the three of them out on the back of a Challenge Cup final triumph at the start of a historic treble.
Other players have spoken about that as being part of the group’s motivation, but Sinfield wants to make it about the team, not any individuals.
“I hope not,” he stressed. “It is nice that players and people have that opinion towards the three of us and if they use that as motivation, then fantastic.
“But from the three of us, I don’t think any of us would ask anybody to try and win it for us.
“We have got to try and win it for the right reasons, which are this club needs to win trophies, the fan base we have and our friends and families.
“These big occasions don’t come along that often.
“Thankfully over the last 10 years we’ve been in a few of them, but to be able to make the most of them is what’s important.
“They are a great bunch at our club and I think every single one of them deserves a win on Saturday, but we have got to be good enough.”
This year will be Rhinos’ fifth final in six seasons.
They ended a run of six consecutive losses in finals 12 months ago and will travel to Wembley in fine fettle, four points clear at the top of the First Utility Super-8s and on a run of six successive victories.
Confidence is high and Leeds are in good form, despite injuries which have ruled Liam Sutcliffe, Paul Aiton and Jamie Jones-Buchanan out of action for the rest of the campaign.
Asked if Rhinos are in better shape now than before their previous Wembley appearances, Sinfield said: “I am not sure, but what I would say is the group have experience of winning it now.
“Because of how well it worked last year, being relaxed in the build-up and all the rounds, I think that experience does count for something.
“But ultimately, I think it comes down to the 80 minutes on the field. I have said that before Grand Finals in the past and before Cup finals; if we play well enough we will give ourselves a great chance.
“That’s what Saturday is about, turning up and playing as well as we can.
“I think if we do that, we will make life really tough for Hull KR.”
That’s not to say Sinfield, victim of a Cup upset when Hull beat Leeds a decade ago, is underestimating the opposition. He stressed: “We understand they have got some threats and some dangermen
“They are a team that will give absolutely everything in the game, but we know if we play to our full potential we will cause them some problems.
“Hopefully we can reach our full potential down there, but we can’t take anything for granted, we have been favourites before and we’ve been underdogs and it doesn’t really matter.
“It is all on the 80 minutes and they have got enough in their team to trouble us. They’ve got enough reasons to want to win and come and be great.
“So have we, let’s go down there and give it our best shot. Let’s play as well as we can and the better we play, the more chance we will give ourselves of lifting the trophy. We will look forward to it. We got through last week’s game unscathed and we are going to try and really enjoy the week.”