Sinfield and Peacock: Rugby’s unlikely heroes

Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield celebrate after this year's Challenge Cup final.
Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield celebrate after this year's Challenge Cup final.
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Tonight Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock play their last home game for Leeds Rhinos. Grant Woodward and Peter Smith report on the end of an era.

WHATEVER twists and turns unfold beneath the Headingley floodlights, the game of rugby league knows it is about to witness the end of an era. Tonight, two of the greatest players in the sport’s history will take their final bow at the ground where they have celebrated such glittering success.

Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock will leave the Leeds Rhinos at the end of this season. At Headingley Stadium this evening, in front of their adoring fans, they are likely to have a major say in whether the party carries on for one more game. Victory over St Helens would bring yet another Super League Grand Final – and the chance to go out with a bang.

For the last decade or so, the duo have been synonymous with success, helping the Rhinos to a staggering haul of silverware. Six Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and a brace of World Club Challenge triumphs – the sport’s unofficial world championships – tell the tale of a decade’s dominance.

This year Leeds are chasing the treble, having lifted the Challenge Cup for the second consecutive year and taken the League Leaders’ Shield for topping the Super League table at end of the regular season. But if they do finish their Rhinos careers on a high, don’t expect to catch the pair crowing about it or tumbling out of the nearest nightclub. They aren’t the sort to let things go to their heads.

Sinfield grew up in a terraced house in Oldham (making him an adopted Yorkshireman) with Che Guevara slogans put on the wall by his trade union activist parents Ray and Beryl.

“Dad was an electrician and we came from a very working class house,” Sinfield has said. “He did a lot of overtime when we were kids just to put food on the table, I’m not saying we were on the breadline, but we weren’t very well off.

“But they always had a lot of spirit and leadership and that’s been a big inspiration to me. It’s their values and morals which have moulded me into what I am today.”

Signing for Leeds Rhinos at the age of 13, he shone with a determination and discipline far beyond his years. It was Daryl Powell, then in charge of Leeds and now Castleford Tigers’ coach, who made the decision to appoint him as captain ahead of the 2002 season.

“We roomed together when he had just broken into the first team,” he recalls. “He was 17 and I was 34 – so I was twice his age. He always was a mature young fella and you could see he was going to do well in the game.

“He has outstripped what everybody thought he would achieve. He has been a phenomenal professional player for a number of years, a role model, and you have to admire everything he has done in the game.”

The self-discipline that drove Sinfield to greatness didn’t come as easily to his close teammate Jamie Peacock. Fond of a pint, he would spend entire weekends drinking. Some of it, he willingly concedes, contributed to his mixed fortunes on the pitch. He also made for an unconventional star-in-the making.

“My hat always goes off to JP, because when he turned up at Bradford he was gangly, uncoordinated, blind as a bat,” recalls Bulls coach James Lowes, who played alongside Peacock at Bradford. “Brian McDermott [Bradford player and now Leeds coach] used to call him one of the Thunderbirds.

“It just goes to show what you can do if you believe in yourself and people around you believe in you.”

A big influence was his late father, Darryl, who encouraged him to trust his raw talent even when he began to doubt it. As a car-less 18-year-old off for his first trial with Bradford he caught the bus. But as it got nearer to the ground he “bottled it” and didn’t get off. He ended up phoning his dad.

“Dad said he believed in me and that Brian Noble believed in me,” he has recalled. He got back on the bus and the rest is history.

The rollercoaster years now firmly behind him, Peacock has been a major figure in the Rhinos’ success since his move to Leeds, the club he supported as a boy growing up in Bramley. His determination to give his all shows in the five-mile run he does every Christmas Day and, in his final season, the sign he’s put up at home asking: ‘How do you want to be remembered?’

Little wonder Leeds’ chief executive, Gary Hetherington, says: “He has certainly been the most influential signing the club has ever made.”

Aside from their success – and a matching pair of MBEs for services to their sport – Sinfield and Peacock share something else in common. Off the field, family instinctively comes first.

Peacock credits wife Faye and children Lewis, Lilly and Freya for keeping his feet on the ground. “The one thing I have learnt,” he has said, “is that there’s so much more to life than rugby. You’re not discovering a cure for cancer.”

In the same vein, after leading the Rhinos to victory in the 2012 Grand Final, Sinfield chose to spend time with wife Jayne and sons Jack and Sam rather than hit the beers.

Impeccable role models, their names and faces may not be well-known beyond League’s northern enclaves, but they are among Britain’s sporting giants. If the pair’s pasts are littered with glory, their futures are less certain. But whatever happens tonight, their places in Rhinos folklore – and the annals of the game they have served with such distinction – are assured.