The tribute Leeds Rhinos legend Rob Burrow deserved

GEOFF BURROW’S tears said it all. He wasn’t the only one.
There was hardly a dry eye at Headingley on a night when there were laughs and cheers, glories revisited, but most of all lots and lots of tears.
It was, in short, exactly the sort of tribute Rob Burrow deserved, and the sort of night the Rugby League community – and especially the Leeds Rhinos community – needed.
Tributes of all kinds have been paid to this most extraordinary Rugby League hero in the three weeks since his death, from the initial stunned grief on social media, to the pilgrimages which left a sea of colour outside Headingley, to the sport’s collective moment at Wembley.
But inside the ground he made his home, with his people, came the most poignant night and a truly cathartic experience.
Leeds, alongside Sky Sports, deserve an enormous amount of praise for their treatment of the club’s first home game since Burrow’s death.
From the hour-long tribute to the parade of former team-mates, to the performance on the field and the final send-off for his family, everything hit the right note – and was all the more tear-jerking for it.
The tone was the ideal mix of grief and celebration. After all, what a life he lived and what an impact he had, in so many different ways and on so many different people – but unmistakably what a tragedy his death is, by the cruel hand of motor neurone disease and at the cruel age of just 42.
The first word went to Kevin Sinfield, whose name will forever be twinned with Burrow’s, for their feats on the field which conquered the world but far more for their friendship off it which inspired the world.
“We all lose special people, but it’s very rare to lose someone so special to so many,” he said in a pre-recorded message. How disappointed he must have been not to be able to be here, instead being in Japan on coaching duty with England. But he had already captured the mood of all those who were.
Brian Carney hosted for those at the ground and on television, but he was sensible enough to give the floor to Barrie McDermott and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, long-serving team-mates and two of Burrow’s fiercest friends, who showed their underestimated skill as broadcasters to keep things moving.
There were plenty more of Burrow’s comrades lined up to pay their own tributes, from Keith Senior to Danny McGuire to Danny Buderus – sharing impressions and memories that everybody already knew, but wanted to hear one more time.
Of course, his legacy has stretched well beyond rugby. Cath Muir, the artist who has lived with MND for ten years and, remarkably, designed the special jersey worn by Leeds using the same eye-gaze technology which Burrow used to communicate, said: “He become a huge inspiration to myself and the whole MND community.”
That this fixture fell on Global MND Awareness Day, and was already set to be Leeds’ designated MND round, was cruelly ironic but ultimately perfect, helping to give the occasion an ever-bigger purpose.
£10 from every one of the special jerseys sold – and they were everywhere you looked in the stands – went towards the Leeds Hospitals Charity appeal to build the Rob Burrow Centre for MND in the city. The donation buckets around the ground were jangling with change while Sky viewers were encouraged throughout to give to the MND Association for which Burrow, alongside Sinfield, helped raise millions in the hope that those diagnosed with the disease in future will have better prospects than him.
Then came his father, Geoff, so well-known a figure now like all the family who have offered themselves up to the public these last few years, but so, so brave to do so now. He could not keep it together and McDermott reached in for a hug – everyone in the ground wanted to do the same.
Hearts beating, tears flowing, opera singer John Innes kept the atmosphere charged right the way through to the final pre-match tribute – a line-up of dozens of former players, stood behind the current vintage, for a minute’s silence.
Then, the match. An irrelevance, on a night like this. Certainly if Leigh had won, it would have been dismissed as such. But Leeds’ victory – and the manner of it – made it as much a part of the tribute as what came before.
It was clear from early on that this was no ordinary game to these Leeds players, many of whom have been much-maligned in a poor start to the season which cost coach Rohan Smith his job only days before.
With heightened emotion and a higher purpose, they threw themselves into everything, driving with more aggression and scrambling with more desperation. This was a game they felt they simply had to win.
Brodie Croft let that show after both of his first-half tries, which set the Rhinos on their way to an 18-10 victory, releasing much of what was bottled up in roaring celebrations.
He later said of the second, when he ran the length of the field: “I’ve never scored a try that far. It honestly felt like an out-of-body experience, as weird as it sounds. It felt like there was someone else with me on it.”
Leigh coach Adrian Lam equally felt that power over the match: “It looked like they (Leeds) had a bit of extra help from above.”
Chev Walker, a former team-mate of Burrow who took charge of the Rhinos, said: “It’s emotional for everybody. He’s touched so many people. He did when he was alive, he did all the way through his fight. The spirit of him was there tonight.”
After the match, all that was left were the tears – Croft’s post-match interview with Sky as raw as it gets, while Burrow’s wide Lindsey was overcome when brought onto the field with two of their children, Maya and Jackson, for a final video montage and a guard of honour from the players.
That’s just the kind of night it was – one for baring every emotion, and saying the most difficult of goodbyes.


First published in League Express newspaper, Issue 3,436 (June 24, 2024)

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