RIP

One Rob Burrow

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Rob Burrow lifting a Leeds Rhinos flag aloft after winning the 2017 Super League Grand Final in his final game as a professional rugby league player

Even if you don’t know much about rugby league, you will have almost certainly become aware of Rob Burrow through his campaigning to raise awareness and funds for the MND community since he was diagnosed with the illness five years ago. In December 2020, his former captain Kevin Sinfield ran seven marathons in seven days, initially hoping to raise £77,777 in a nod to the number 7 shirt Burrow wore for Leeds. The bond between the former teammates has inspired nearly £20m of fundraising, with Sinfield recently announcing his fifth challenge in as many years. Paying tribute to Burrow, Sinfield said:

Today was the day that I hoped would never come. The world has lost a great man and a wonderful friend to so so many. You fought so bravely until the end and became a beacon of hope and inspiration, not only for the MND community but for all those who saw and heard your story.

My love and thoughts go to your beautiful family, Lindsey, Macy, Maya, and Jackson, to your lovely parents Geoff & Irene, sisters Joanne and Claire and your wider family and friends.

You will continue to inspire me every single day. I have lost a dear friend and I will never forget the special times we shared both on and off the pitch. I would always say that you were pound for pound the toughest player I ever played alongside, however since your diagnosis, you were the toughest and bravest man I have ever met.

The last 4 and a half years you showed the world what living and loving looked like and this was always done with the biggest smile on your face.

I will miss you my little mate

All my love

Kev x

Burrow lived his life according to a piece of advice passed down to all young players at Leeds by the team’s enforcer and resident hardman, Barrie McDermott: it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. It’s one of the reasons why the coverage of his passing has rightly focused on the humanity and dignity he displayed while battling MND, and the inspiration and positivity he provided others facing the same hardship — Burrow represents the best of us. Reading Donald McRae’s piece in The Guardian or watching Kevin Sinfield talking to the BBC both help explain why.

But I’d like to write about Burrow the rugby league player, because that’s how I’ll always remember him. For all the talk of Burrow’s humility and humour off the field, on the pitch he was anything but nice. He was a menace who tormented and humiliated players twice as big and twice as strong with his speed, skill and, above all, courage. In a sport played by the toughest of athletes, the hardest players of that era will all say the player they were most frightened of was the 5ft 5in, 10st lad from Pontefract.

Any highlights of Burrow’s playing career inevitably build to the crescendo of his greatest try, his jack-in-the-box solo effort that broke open the 2011 Grand Final against St Helens, after which he was mobbed in celebration by his partner in crime Danny McGuire. It often goes overlooked that later in the game, when the scores were back level, Burrow produced his greatest assist, dazzling the St Helens defence once more and passing to Ryan Hall to score in the corner, via an outrageous dummy that made Saints winger Francis Meli, in one replay, briefly vanish into the ether. Meli was a New Zealand international and serial trophy winner with Saints, but often the unfortunate fall guy in their Grand Final defeats to Leeds. To this day, I have no doubts there are nights when Meli jolts upright in a cold sweat, awoken by the pitter patter of Burrow’s quickening footsteps getting louder and louder as he relives his worst nightmare.

As man of the match, Burrow lifted the Harry Sunderland Trophy, having become the first player to earn the unanimous vote of all 37 judges. When the next Grand Final takes place in October, the player of the match will be given the Rob Burrow Award.

It’s easily forgotten that Burrow came so close to leaving Leeds earlier that season. When Brian McDermott was appointed head coach in 2011, he made it clear that he didn’t rate Burrow as a first-choice scrum-half. At 29 years old and supposedly in the prime of his career, Burrow was told if he didn’t seek a transfer elsewhere he would have to settle for a role as an impact substitute. An opportunity arose to join Wigan, the Death Star of rugby league, offering him a prominent role in a team challenging for trophies. As tempted as he was, when Burrow envisioned playing against Leeds for any other team, he decided he just couldn’t do it, choosing instead to stick with his boyhood club and help them in any way he could, a loyalty Leeds became eternally grateful for.

Despite his heroics in 2011, Burrow was arguably at his peak when Leeds became the first team to win three consecutive Grand Finals between 2007 and 2009. Heading into the first of those successes, Leeds were facing a St Helens team aiming for a second clean sweep of trophies in a row. The Rhinos crushed Saints in a 33-6 win that should go down as the best performance in their history. Burrow was named as the best player on the pitch that day too, and a month later won player of the series after cementing himself as Great Britain’s number 7 in their 3-0 whitewash of New Zealand. Leeds were playing champagne rugby, and Burrow was dancing through defences with the electricity of Diego Maradona if he’d been born in a West Yorkshire mining town.

On Monday, I visited Headingley stadium, where tributes are being left in Burrow’s honour from supporters of clubs all around the country. A young Leeds fan barely old enough to remember Burrow playing was wearing a shirt with his name and number on the back, wiping tears from his eyes. Across the city in Seacroft, building work was beginning on the Rob Burrow Centre for Motor Neurone Disease. Burrow’s parents and sisters were in attendance alongside Kevin Sinfield for a ceremony as construction began just a day after his death. Before he passed, he was asked whether he wanted the ceremony to go ahead. His mum Irene told the BBC:

“He was asked, we were all there and he used his eyes. There was no hesitation whatsoever. He wanted it to go ahead today.

“As soon as they can get this done, the better for everybody. He’ll be watching today and we’ve pulled ourselves together, all of us, because that’s what Rob would have wanted.”

Almost £6m has been raised to build the centre, but it is still short of the £6.8m funding goal. You can donate to the appeal here. ⬢

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