As he surged for the try line, looking over his shoulder for the contact that never came, Kyle Sinckler could not help himself. He broke into a grin. A big, sloppy grin of pure delight, tongue lolling lazily to the side of his mouth, an infectious happiness that spread throughout the English ranks in Oita.
It was the defining image of a quite remarkable day, a victory over Australia more emphatic than even Eddie Jones might have hoped, the greatest points total England had amassed in a Rugby World Cup knock-out game.
And there was Sinckler at the heart of it all. When he infringed early on, a short spell when Australia were in the ascendancy, and Silatolu Latu patted his head patronisingly, Sinckler didn’t even flinch, much less snarl. ‘I felt so focused on doing my job I didn’t really notice it,’ he said, ‘whereas six months ago that would really have riled me up.’
Kyle Sinckler displayed a big grin as he rampaged past the Australia defence to score a try
At the start of this year, for all his talent, Sinckler’s temperament was viewed as a point of weakness in the England team. ‘An emotional time bomb,’ Warren Gatland called him before England visited Wales in February. It would have hurt even more because Gatland had picked him for the British and Irish Lions.
It wasn’t just a random insult. And when Sinckler was hastily removed from that game for conceding two quick penalties before grabbing Alun Wyn Jones around the neck, the prophecy was fulfilled. England went on to lose without him and Gatland was proven right. Sinckler was a ticking device. Sinckler could go off and destroy all around him.
‘If I’m being honest, the Wales game taught me a lot,’ Sinckler said. ‘I let the team down, I let my country down. If we had won that match we would have been Grand Slam champions. I had to look within and just work on that side of my game.
It was the prop’s first try for his country and came at just the right time in the Rugby World Cup
‘A sign of toughness isn’t what you say to the opposition or how you react with handbags or whatever. It’s your next action and that’s something I’ve tried to really, really improve.
‘I know my behaviour in the past has cost the team and I didn’t want to feel like that again. I had to look within and help myself. I feel like I’ve definitely done something — I hope you guys have seen a change. It’s working for me, but it’s been tough.’
Sinckler is talking harsh self-analysis and reflection, questions not about rugby but about his life, his upbringing, his circumstances, where that anger came from and why it manifested itself even when he was playing the sport he loves.
‘I feel I’ve always been quite a frustrated guy,’ Sinckler revealed.
The 26-year-old has a reputation for being a hothead and liability for his country
Wales coach Warren Gatland labelled Sinckler an ’emotional timebomb’ earlier this year
‘Rugby is my canvas. I’ve always expressed myself through it, like my outlet. So I’ve had to deal with a lot of things I was frustrated about in my life and address them. I’ve been working really hard with someone to look at those things off the field, things that happened in my childhood. And then once I got a better understanding of that stuff I had no frustrations; I could just go out and play.
‘I’ve been working with a guy called Ollie Pryce-Tidd, who is at an organisation called Saviour World. He’s done a lot of work with James O’Connor, the Australian player. It’s probably nothing to do with rugby really. My frustrations were not rugby-related.
‘I was born in a single-parent home. I was always looking for that male father figure. Subconsciously, I put people in that position, put my trust in certain people who betrayed me really. It was just about me taking control of my life and teaching me how to be an actual man. A man is in control of his emotions, a man looks after his family, he does the right things. He doesn’t let anything that frustrates him show. He just gets on with it.
‘Where I’m from there’s a big onus on me to set a good example and be a role model and show what being a man is. A man isn’t losing your rag, your emotions, showing your opponent how you might really feel. It’s about being calm, being disciplined, putting the team first, doing your job and not allowing your ego to take control. I’ve taken a step back rather than being in people’s faces these days.’
Sinckler was sent off for grabbing the shirt of Alun Wyn Jones in this year’s Six Nations
Saviour World is not a typical refuge for rugby types. Conditioning and fitness is important but it’s very new age in its approach otherwise: sitting half naked in circles, breathing exercises, cider vinegar drinks and promises of ‘knowledge for men’.
Australian back O’Connor was on a downward spiral — removed from a plane to Perth by police for being drunk, arrested on suspicion of trying to buy cocaine in Paris — and he credits Saviour World with turning his life around. Danny Cipriani has also featured in the group’s videos, and Pryce-Tidd uses unconventional techniques including sensory deprivation, heat exhaustion and deep states of meditation to force his clients to confront uncomfortable truths.
That certainly seems to be the case with Sinckler, who spoke after Saturday’s game in a way that confirmed his growing maturity. He could be a hugely important figure in English rugby, a potential Raheem Sterling, a spokesman for his generation.
Sinckler is from Furzedown, near Streatham, a part of south London that is hardly a rugby hotbed. It’s not the slums — Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, is a resident, and Labour’s shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan is the MP — but two miles away is Deeside Road in Wandsworth, where 18-year-old Cheyon Evans was fatally stabbed in June.
Sinckler says his change in behaviour is due to help from an organisation called Saviour World
Sinckler’s first sport, like most kids from the area, was football, but a tendency towards extreme physicality and the fights that often resulted drove his mum, Donna, a worker at a police call centre, to seek out a local rugby team.
Battersea Ironsides do not have a long list of alumni who made it into the national team. Many weeks, Sinckler has said, they had to borrow players from the opposition to get out a starting XV. Now it has one of the busiest youth sections in the country due, in part, to Sinckler’s influence.
That IS his personal mission at this tournament, away from the team ambitions: to emerge as a figure that could inspire the next generation, the way his imagination was fired by the 2003 World Cup-winners.
The group have also helped troubled Australian star James O’Connor for a number of problems
Sinckler admits wanting to be Jason Robinson, looking in the mirror, and settling on Jason Leonard instead. Yet, for a prop, he has good hands and, as he showed on Saturday, an explosive burst of pace. Eddie Jones compared him to a charging rhino, and they’re pretty swift when they get going.
Sinckler matters because he is the player who proves he doesn’t need the right school, or family connections, to make it to rugby’s summit.
Equally, his rise has been as slick as his feet, moving on to that pass from Owen Farrell. When a local journalist asked him if England’s victory was revenge for the Australian defeat that eliminated them at the last tournament, his self-deprecating answer revealed how far he has come. ‘Not really for me, it wasn’t,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t involved then. I was third-choice prop at Harlequins at the time so it made no difference. I was in a pub watching the game with Adam Jones.’
Now he is front and centre in England’s first semi-final since beating France in 2007. His sense of duty reaches far beyond overcoming the All Blacks. ‘I feel like I’ve got a real big responsibility for the team and the people watching back home, especially people where I come from,’ Sinckler said.
For now, Sinckler is aiming to help inspire the next generation with another World Cup triumph
‘My mission is to inspire the next generation the way the 2003 generation inspired me. I remember watching them and Jonny Wilkinson kicking that goal and it made me want to play rugby and be on that stage. It’s a matter of having a responsibility to the grassroots and people from my background.
‘It’s all about belief. A lot of people, when I was growing up, said I couldn’t do a lot of things, that I wouldn’t amount to anything. I was lucky to have a good family around me, a good group of friends who supported me and steered me in the right direction. They were good role models. Look at the stuff that’s happening around London with knife crime. It’s just because kids are bored, they’re sitting around.
‘When I was a kid I had training, I was playing football, rugby, cricket, I was at kick-boxing, karate, I didn’t have time to think about doing something bad.’
Sinckler smiles. The grin we all recognise now, from the back pages, from the television highlights. It’s the smile of a man at last happy in his own skin. Still emotional, still passionate, but no longer a time bomb.
‘That’s nice if people are thinking of me like that,’ he said, ‘but I think I could have played better, I think I could have contributed more. For me, it’s: cool, good game, and enjoy this moment, because it could all be over in a second.’
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