Sinfield stays loyal as Eastmond moves on
Last week, 30-year-old Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield signed a new contract to stay at Headingley for the rest of his professional career. This week, 21-year-old St Helens scrum-half Kyle Eastmond decided to join Bath rugby union. I find the respective career choices of both players fascinating.
I spoke to Sinfield at length as the Leeds squad took a day off following what the England forward describes as "two hard days fixing what went wrong" after a shock home defeat by surprise Super League leaders Harlequins. I am told the Rhinos had a swim and then watched a video of their 36-26 reverse, which made for "unpleasant viewing".
I rang Sinfield to discuss loyalty in sport and to ask him what inspires some players to commit to one club, while others, rightly or wrongly, concentrate on maximising their earning potential? Should we respect a one-club man more than one who chooses to step out of his comfort zone for a new challenge?
"Loyalty has always been a big thing in my life but it works two ways," Sinfield told me. "The club has been very loyal to me. When I signed that deal last week, many people thought I was foolish. Leeds are not the biggest or best payers but I have a good lifestyle and they have invested so much in grassroots rugby league and in young players that it makes it very, very difficult for me to think of leaving."
St Helens invested in Eastmond, too, yet he still decided to move on. "It is very disappointing as we spent a lot of time and effort on Kyle's development over the years," admitted Saints assistant coach Keiron Purtill.
Yet in highlighting Sinfield as a beacon of loyalty and rugby league's equivalent of Ryan Giggs, I had to ask how close the Oldham-born player has come to leaving the club that has developed him. The answer is very close. He even tells me he was considering switching codes this year.
"I've been approached to play union and I was tempted," he said. "There were a couple of occasions when I seriously evaluated where I was at and what I wanted from my career.
"I met with England coach Sir Clive Woodward in 2002/3 when union were targeting a lot of league players. Andy Farrell moved shortly after that. Keiron Cunningham, Kris Radlinski and a few other young lads were approached, too.
Sinfield is sticking with league - Eastmond is heading to union. Photos: Getty Images
"I really considered it but at the time I had not won anything at Leeds and wanted to tick as many boxes as I could in league before I thought about trying union."
In contrast, Eastmond has achieved very little yet in league - which is why some fans have criticised the Saints scrum-half.
Sinfield thinks it is unfair that Eastmond is getting flak, yet the Leeds stalwart urges the youngster to be realistic about the size of the challenge facing him.
"You certainly need to consider your own welfare and livelihood, like he is doing," said Sinfield. "And you would be really foolish if you did not want to do your best for yourself and your family. Being a rugby league player is not like being a millionaire footballer. And it is a difficult balance, trying to earn as much as you can to live a good life but being happy doing what you do. For me, that does not mean chasing pound notes."
Almost a decade after Sinfield was first given the chance to join union, he was handed another opportunity to switch codes. Again, he decided to turn it down.
"I had two years left on my deal so it would have meant paying a transfer fee or playing out two years until I was 32," said Sinfield. "It would have been unrealistic to think I could have learned an entire new sport like union at 32. You need to be respectful of the game and to think I could try it at 32 would be taking the mickey."
Eastmond is nine years Sinfield's junior and has no problem with confidence. But how will he cope with another sport, one in which he has no obvious starting position?
"I'm not quite sure how it is going to pan out for him," Sinfield told me. "Even now, Kyle will not realise just how much he has got to learn - and he won't do until he starts training and playing the game."
The Leeds captain believes Eastmond will need to be patient but thinks he could eventually emulate another recent union convert.
"As a league scrum-half, Kyle will touch the ball three times a set. In union, he may go through a whole game on the wing only touching the ball once or twice. It will be a slow and frustrating learning process but Kyle could have a similar impact to Chris Ashton."
But nothing is guaranteed, as Sinfield himself will acknowledge. Both Chev Walker and Lee Smith, players Sinfield knows well, experienced short and ultimately unhappy spells in union before making a return to league.
Walker himself has been unusually vocal following the announcement that Eastmond will join Bath at the end of the Super League season. He feels the Rugby Football League should be doing more to stop the talent drain, urging rugby league's governing body in this country to focus more on marketing the stars to the public than the game itself.
"The last household names of rugby league were Martin Offiah and Ellery Hanley," said Walker, who returned to league in 2007 after starting only eight matches for Bath. "Promote the stars not just the game!"
It is an argument with which Sinfield wholeheartedly agrees.
"Union players and footballers get massive media spotlight and their profile is huge. I think league sometimes just relies on the product," he said. "The product is fantastic and we all think it is the best game in the world but we can't just rely on that to spread the game wide and make it internationally stronger.
"We need to get some of our stars involved with the big sponsors and brands to create personalities and interest. With the salary cap restricting player earnings, we need this to boost our income and then the lure of union won't be so big."
I finished our chat by discussing Sinfield the player and Sinfield the man, once again likening his career to that of Giggs. "I don't do yoga like Giggs but I am trying to look after myself - and have done since the start," said Sinfield.
"I like my massages. We have a sports masseur who is quite happy to stick in his elbows as deep as he can. It is pretty brutal and unpleasant but seems to do the trick. That plus the right nutrition and enough sleep should allow me to enjoy the next four years."
Content in league with Leeds, you get the feeling that Sinfield probably has no problem sleeping at night.