A man for all seasons
Kevin Sinfield, the only man in rugby league history to captain five championship-winning sides, a points-kicking prodigy and arguably the pivotal player in the last decade of Super League, could be forgiven for allowing himself a little self-congratulation or hubris.
Instead, he summarises his remarkable abilities in rather different fashion. "I'm not the most powerful player, or the fastest, or the strongest," he says. "I'm probably not at the top of any of those lists. But I'm all right at all of them."
One skill Sinfield is good at, though, is goal-kicking. The 31-year-old stand-off or loose forward has been described by the Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington as the "finest kicker in the history of rugby".
Even allowing for a little local bias, it's a description that tells you much more about Sinfield's talents than his own modest assessment.
Season after season, from tee after tee, Sinfield has won crunch games and championships by landing kicks from all over the park under the most intense pressure. How? It starts with love.
"I'm happiest when I'm kicking a ball," he says, with feeling. "Even if I didn't play rugby, I'd kick every day if I could. In the park, with my kids, at the training ground - I love it."
We are sitting in an executive box at Headingley Carnegie Stadium, looking out through the weak wintry sunshine towards the Western Terrace and the posts that Sinfield has taken aim at a thousand times.
Leeds begin the defence of their Super League crown against Hull KR on Friday, but thoughts of further silverware are far from their captain's mind.
"It sounds strange, but I don't tend to motivate myself through trophies," he says. "They're what we all play for. But I just want to get better every year. That's what keeps me going."
The start of that self-improvement owes a little to luck and more to a pushy big brother. As a kid growing up in Oldham, Sinfield was obsessed with football and his hero, Gary Lineker.
The seven-year-old striker, whose biggest sporting experience up until that point, had been watching the Latics lose the 1990 Littlewoods Cup final, only became a loose forward when brother Ian's under-nine's team were a player short one day.
The call went out and the younger Sinfield stepped in. "I remember standing there on me own, no mates, getting a bit upset," he recalls. "Within 10 minutes, I was loving it."
His rise was rapid. At 13, he signed for Leeds. Aged 16, he was making his first-team debut against Sheffield Eagles, his promotion so unexpected that his father had to collect his GCSE results for him so he could make the game.
"I was gobsmacked," remembers Sinfield. "I probably got more out of that day I made my debut than I did out of the next two years. It gave me a taste of where I needed to be and what I had to do to play at that level.
"I was quite a shy kid, probably not someone who pushed themselves to the front of the queue. The game felt like it was on fast-forward. But the place just felt right. They made a fuss of me."
Fifteen years on, Sinfield has played almost 400 times for Leeds, skippered them for 10 seasons and is closing in fast on the 3,000-point mark.
"What hurts most in the mornings? It's been my feet," he tells me. "When the grounds go hard again, June to August, those first few steps out of bed aren't pleasant."
Sinfield still lives in Oldham, a Lancastrian who has become a Yorkshire hero, low-key in appearance and calm of demeanour. "I'm not a flash bloke," he says. "I'm probably perceived to be quite boring."
Where he becomes extraordinary is in those chest-squeezing moments when games and seasons hinge on his leadership and place-kicking. How does he steady his head when all around are losing theirs?
"There are two parts to the game for me: the rugby side - the playing; and the kicking side, when I switch on the autopilot."
Twice last season he won key games with dead-eyed pressure kicking, once against Castleford Tigers in the Challenge Cup semi-final and then against Warrington Wolves in the Super League play-off semi-finals. Can he really block out the noise, the occasion, the implications?
"Yup. In my head, it's all gone. I'm back at the training ground at Kirkstall, where it's quiet, or the lads are all throwing balls at me and whistling."
His hands don't shake as he puts ball on tee? "No. This is my job. And I don't think about what it means. At the time, no. But as soon as they go over, yes."
Sinfield credits his clean ball-striking with a former Wigan legend and a formative love of football for his technique.
"I was a ball-boy at Oldham rugby, 1992, 1993, and I remember watching Frano Botica playing for Wigan," he says. "I was right up next to him and I noticed that, rather than having the ball leaning back, he had it pointing forward. From then on, I leant the ball forward, too.
"From football, it just seemed natural to me to take a kick like it was a free-kick. I get asked a lot about the angle I come in at, but it just feels right. As I'm walking back after we've scored, it's instinctive where I place the ball."
Can he tell straight away if the ball is going over? "I try to keep my head down for a long time after I've kicked a ball, but I tend to know," he says.
Sinfield, by his own admission, is not a captain who goes in for ranting and raving. Strongly influenced by his parents, radical socialists with a deep affection for Che Guevara, he talks a lot of respect, integrity and honesty.
"Your upbringing is important in shaping your personality," he says. "I do believe that my performance is the best thing I can give the team. And if I'm not delivering, then I can't expect anyone else to."
This will be Sinfield's 15th season as a professional. What advice would today's decorated veteran give to the callow teenager who made his debut all those long years ago?
"I'd probably try to push myself a little more," he says. "Not in terms of training, or working any harder, but when you're in that environment with so many senior players, it's easier to be quiet and keep your head down. I would tell myself to take more risks, both in the dressing room and on the pitch."
Will there still be nerves when he runs out at Headingley on Friday night? He grins.
"Definitely! The big games tend to bring the most nerves because of the expectancy and the stage you're on," he says. "Your family and friends are there, everyone's watching.
"There's still the excitement about playing. I wake up on a game-day morning and the butterflies are still there."