As the Rugby League world comes to terms with the news that former Leeds Rhinos, Great Britain and England star Rob Burrow is fighting motor neurone disease, a string of former team-mates explain why the 37-year-old is held in such high esteem.
A FANTASTIC LAD WITH TIME FOR EVERYONE
BARRIE McDERMOTT was a long-standing team-mate of Burrow’s at Leeds:
The thing with Rob is that the stature he had as a player is certainly not the same as his stature as a person.
He’s fought adversity all his career with his size, and come out of the other side with so many trophies, both individual and team.
He’s a fantastic lad who would do anything for anyone. He was involved with Ackworth Jaguars before he came into the Rhinos coaching staff and if you were involved there, you knew you had a man who would set aside time for everyone and do his best for everyone.
As a player, he was a trickster and a prankster, especially with the bigger lads. Ask Kylie Leuluai and Jamie Peacock… he’d terrorise us big lads! He tormented us – but when we were out on that field, we all made sure we looked after him.
I’m still coming to terms with it myself, and a lot of the ex-Rhinos lads have been reconnecting with each other this week and making sure we’re all okay.
I’m still not quite there a week removed from finding out, so goodness knows where Rob is at. But he’s got so many friends and so many people who are behind him and who will help him.
The good thing hopefully is that he’s got youth on his side. The character he’s got, he will not lie down and let it take control. He’s told us he’ll try to go about his normal routine as best he can, and I’m sure he’ll want to just concentrate on what he enjoys, which is Rugby League and his family.
The fundraising we’re trying to do is to make sure there’s a trust fund for Rob and his family, so that money is the least of his worries.
He doesn’t want people to show pity on him and he wants to fight this, but everyone is rallying around him. It’ll be bloody hard work but we are setting a target of £1million to keep his family secure.
We’re better than any other sport than rallying around each other, and people shouldn’t underestimate how small an effort they think they’re making. Whatever it is people do, collectively it will roll together and hopefully make something huge.
A TRUE TROJAN OF OUR GAME
DARYL POWELL was one of Burrow’s first coaches at Leeds Rhinos:
He’s a trojan of a player and a trojan of a man. He’s going to need all that moving forward looking at the tough journey he’s on, but he’ll have so many people around him for support because everyone loves him.
I remember him as a young fella. I saw him at scholarship level, and you knew he had something about him. He was so quick, it was frightening, and his attitude was anything I can do, I will.
I would do anything for Rob and his family, and I genuinely mean that. His family are awesome. like he is.
It’s whacked me, hearing the news. It’s really taken me aback. Anything I can do to help him out, I absolutely will. I’m sure everyone within the sport will be doing that too.
YOU ONLY MEET PEOPLE LIKE HIM ONCE IN A BLUE MOON
ZAK HARDAKER won numerous titles with Burrow at Leeds, and grew up in Pontefract, like Burrow:
He’s from the same town as me, and I always remember seeing him driving around town with his white Audi TT when I was a kid, with the private registration on. Me and my mates used to go crazy when he drove past, getting excited that it was Rob Burrow!
When I signed at Leeds, he was the first person to pick me up and take me into training, as I didn’t know how to get there. I car-shared with him for the first few weeks and when I got my first ‘proper’ wage, I bought myself an Audi TT: but it was a black one so I didn’t copy him exactly!
He was someone I’d see in the street and be inspired by, just like when I saw him play on television.
I’d get excited whenever I had the opportunity to be in his company, and it’s still an honour whenever I get the chance to do that now.
He’s a really generous, lovely bloke who took me under his wing in the first year I was at Leeds, and I can’t speak highly enough about that and how important it was for me.
You come across people like Rob once in a blue moon. People say good things about lots of people – but nobody could say a bad word about the guy. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He’s chirpy, chatty and full of energy and just one of those guys you needed in your squad to galvanise you and inspire you.
I got told about what’s happened on Thursday just before training and it threw me, to be honest. I got home, saw it on the news and watched the interviews and I started crying.
He doesn’t want sympathy but he’s such a nice bloke, he’s going to get it.
I’ve made so many great memories in life with him and it was devastating. I would genuinely call him a friend and it’s heartbreaking to know what’s happened to someone like Rob.
HIS BANTER WAS AS GOOD AS HIS FOOTWORK
KEITH SENIOR formed a deadly partnership with Burrow during Leeds’ decade of dominance:
He’s a joker is Rob, when you’ve got small-man syndrome you’ve got to be quick-witted, he couldn’t kick the crap out of anybody because he was only 4ft tall, but he has good banter and good crack. He always has an answer and comes back with quite sharp and witty comebacks.
He was my halfback partner for most of my career, we had a great partnership. He was just one of those players that had his speed and his quick feet, it was Jason Robinson-like, he was electric.
There are loads of memories. One of the best is the 2011 Grand Final. I was injured and doing the radio that day but I believe it’s the first and only time the entire media have named the same player as man of the match.
But my favourite memory was against Hull FC and he tried to pick a fight with Epalahame Lauaki. Lauaki had his hands on Rob’s head and it was like a sketch of Scooby and Scrappy Do, with Rob swinging his arms and not getting anywhere near him. He keeps saying that in his career he’s a fight record of 3-0. He says he won all the fights he’s had. I don’t know where he gets that from but don’t let facts get in the way of a good story!
He had the adversity as a kid, he was always told he was too small to play. From day dot, he’s had that adversity and challenge to prove people wrong. This is a massive challenge for him and his family. He’ll have the highs and lows but he’ll embrace them all because of his three kids.
HE DEFIED THE ODDS TO ACHIEVE GREATNESS
RICHARD MATHERS played with Burrow from being a teenager:
One thing that stands out in my mind with Rob is how infectious he is as a character, from 13 he has never changed.
He is one of those people always laughing and joking. He makes people around him happy and brings smiles to people’s faces.
You look back at that Grand Final try, he did that from 13 year old. We have a special bond and we’ve had that from 13 to winning at Old Trafford.
I know many of his former team-mates say it, but he fought against the odds. He was tiny, he had every bit of protective gear he could have, but my gosh he was as brave as they come. He formed that partnership with Danny McGuire and they lasted the test of time. He defied odds in a sport where you’re told it’s all about size.
He shouldn’t have been a Rugby League player and given his stature, it shows you how tough he was. There was nobody else who could do what Rob could do on the field.
Some of those nights at Headingley with him and Magsy tearing teams apart, it gives me a shiver thinking about it.
We knew we could make a difference back then and Daryl gave us all our debuts and Gary had the foresight to back us. Rob won eight Grand Finals, I’m so proud to call him a team-mate.
You can pigeonhole lots of players and compare them to someone else, but there’s simply never been anyone like Rob Burrow.
NOBODY HAS A BAD THING TO SAY ABOUT HIM
STEVE McNAMARA has played and coached against Burrow:
We were all stunned when the news came through, particularly players and staff who have played with or against him.
And, like everyone else in the Rugby League world, we’re prepared to do whatever we can to support him.
We were all shocked and saddened by the news. Rob is such a popular figure in Rugby League, he must be unique in that there isn’t a single person who hasn’t got a bad thing to say about him.
I’ve got great memories of Rob as a player, he was part of our group when I was England coach and he was always a very popular member of the squad. He’s a great guy and a real fighter, he was always in the middle of it on the pitch.
I’ve also been on the other side in games against him where he just destroyed us. We thought we’d won several times when I was at Bradford, then he’d just tear us apart with his pace and skill.
So to see a fit and healthy kid like that come down with such a devastating disease is heart-breaking. It’s extremely sad and a cruel, cruel illness.
It’s typical of Rob that he’s already shown that he’s going to be positive in his battle. It’s up to us now to give him as much support as possible and do whatever we can to raise awareness and resources to help him through this.
I’m sure many people will have experience of this terrible illness. I had a very close friend who suffered MND and passed away just a couple of years ago. I witnessed from start to finish exactly how cruel it can be.
It’s hard to find positives but the great thing with Rob is his sheer personality and his willingness to tackle it head-on. He knows he can bring more awareness of the disease and help to focus more efforts into trying to find a cure.
This disease just seems a little too common at the moment. I don’t know if it’s on the increase or more publicity is making it seem more prevalent, but it’s so important that we fight back and, knowing Rob, that’s exactly what he will be doing.
HIS FIVE GREAT MOMENTS
1 Old Trafford’s greatest try
With eight Grand Final wins, Burrow will go down as one of Super League’s all-time greats.
But his iconic score in the 2011 Grand Final for Leeds against St Helens was the iconic moment in a legendary career.
The trademark scamper at the defence, the instinctive duck under Tony Puletua, the elusive skip away from James Roby, the stunning sidestep to ground Paul Wellens, and the acceleration to reach the line.
With one incredible run, this diminutive 5ft 5in halfback etched his name into Old Trafford, Super League and Leeds Rhinos folklore.
Burrow created history that day, becoming the first player to pick up every single vote from the media for the Harry Sunderland award. Only one player has been able to replicate that since, his friend and former halfback partner Danny McGuire.
2 Distinguished company
Burrow’s capture of the 2011 man of the match award wasn’t his first.
Four years earlier, he was also mesmeric as the Rhinos won the 2007 Grand Final 33-6 against St Helens.
Burrow was inspirational as tries from Brent Webb, Ali Lauitiiti, Scott Donald, Lee Smith and Jamie Jones-Buchanan secured a comfortable victory.
Burrow put the icing on the top with a field goal, helping him earn the Harry Sunderland award.
To this day, he is one of just four people to win the award twice, the others being Alan Tait, Andy Farrell and Danny McGuire.
3 The long wait ended
By 2014, Burrow has already cemented himself as a great.
But there was still one trophy that had eluded him.
Leeds had failed to add a Challenge Cup trophy to their cabinet for years, with Burrow playing in a staggering five final defeats.
But in 2014, he finally got his hands on the famous trophy as the Rhinos defeated Castleford to win the competition for the first time since 1999.
Burrow’s kick created a crucial try for team-mate Danny McGuire to put Leeds in a commanding position.
4 The last hurrah
He’d done everything there was to do by the time he announced his retirement in 2017.
But there was still time for one last triumph, one last moment of glory as he brought the curtain down on one of the all-time great careers.
Leeds went into the Grand Final as underdogs to a Castleford team that had blown away the Rhinos on numerous occasions that season.
But Burrow and co weren’t to be denied as they cruised to victory and he secured an eighth Grand Final winners’ ring.
Burrow lifted the trophy with his partner in crime, McGuire, to bring a fitting and glorious end to one of the most remarkable careers we’ve seen.
5 World Domination
The 2004 season was the beginning of a decade of dominance for Leeds, which was ushered in by their young bunch of homegrown talents, featuring Burrow himself.
After winning the club’s first Grand Final, they went in search of world champion status in the World Club Challenge.
Alongside Richie Maters, Chev Walker, Danny McGuire and Ryan Bailey, who he had played with since his days as a teenager, they did indeed become champions of the world.
In front of more than 37,000 people at Elland Road, Burrow was among the try-scorers as the Rhinos defeated Canterbury Bulldogs 39-32, collecting Marcus Bai’s pass to race home under the sticks to develop a 26-6 lead.
He would go on to become a three-time world champion with the Rhinos.