Robert the Lionheart
Rob Burrow approaches MND like he did Rugby League: with bravery and without fear
It was October 2011, and as they do at the end of every season, thousands of rugby league fans descended on Old Trafford to see which way the League title would be decided.
Since the creation of a play-off and Grand Final system in 1998, the contest had earned a reputation for high intensity, low scoring affairs. In 2011, the traditional pre-match downpour of rain pointed towards another night of slippery feet and difficult handling conditions. Nothing that happened in the first half an hour — as Leeds and St Helens locked themselves into a defensive war of attrition — suggested anything different.
Watching the opening exchanges unfold impatiently, from the substitutes bench, was the Leeds Rhinos half-back Rob Burrow. In previous years, when Leeds and St Helens faced each other in the “last dance”, Burrow had been integral to their success. He picked up the Harry Sunderland Trophy as Man of the Match in 2007, and added to it with Championship wins in 2008 and 2009. But just two years later, there was no longer a place for him in the starting line up. Instead he seemed destined to spend the peak of his playing years as an impact substitute.
As Burrow recounts in his newly published autobiography Too Many Reasons To Live (Pan Macmillan £20.00), the coach, Brian McDermott, was not the first person to doubt his ability. In an age where people of all backgrounds are encouraged to participate in competitive sport, one thing is still guaranteed to hold a young person back: their size.
From the age of seven, when Burrow first started playing, people told him that this was not the game for him. His height was an issue for everybody, from dismissive coaches to sceptical teammates to the cynical parents on the sidelines. If people weren’t laughing at him for trying to run after players double his size, they were concerned that he might seriously injure himself.
Rugby league communities pride themselves on being “honest”. But part of the bargain means that few are willing to skirt around an issue right in front of them. And on those harsh playing fields of Castleford, Batley, Dewsbury and Featherstone, each Sunday, a teenage Burrow was well aware that everybody was waiting for him to slip up. The only person fighting his corner was his Grandad Bob: “You’ll see”, he would tell them.
In the world of rugby league, where even the half backs are often over 6 foot, he looked totally out of place
By the time he turned professional, at the age of eighteen, he had grown in stature to 5″4, but in the world of rugby league, where even the half backs are often over 6 foot, he looked totally out of place. When, in 2001, he made his first appearance in front of the Sky Sports cameras, the commentators joked that it was probably past his bed-time. And when Leeds signed the 6″7 tall Wayne MacDonald from Wakefield, the club was able to generate some publicity by sending them out together for a photo shoot. With his arm perched on top of Burrow’s head, the contrast between the pair was striking. There was probably more attention on him — purely because of his height — than any young player in Super League history.
It didn’t take long, however, for people to start talking about his rugby instead. As the legendary St Helens half-back Sean Long reveals in Too Many Reasons To Live, it was the big forwards who soon began fearing the worst when lining up against him. He gained a knack for ducking underneath props and burning them for pace. It was a trick play that nobody else could really do. Getting hurt on a rugby pitch is one thing, Long admits, but being embarrassed “is the worst thing that can happen to a professional sportsperson”.
Burrow — and Leeds — soon turned his size to their advantage. In 2004, at the age of 22, he was part of the iconic side that won the club its first title since the 1970s. International honours followed, and, alongside a golden generation of talent — including the talismanic Kevin Sinfield — the Rhinos went on to enjoy an unprecedented period of success.
By 2011 the club was moving in a different direction. After being told he was no longer a first choice half-back, he recalls how it was the first time in his career that he was “truly devastated” and began to wonder what life without rugby league would be like. There were offers on the table from rivals Castleford, as well as Warrington and Wigan. A different character might well have left out of spite. But Rob Burrow was never a spiteful player. Instead, he set out to prove the doubters wrong.
It is in this context that his performance in the 2011 Grand Final can best be understood. With the scores locked at 2-2, the Leeds coach McDermott looked to his substitutes bench for someone to make an impact. With the grind in full flow, resembling a game of human chess, nobody dared do anything that might cause a fatal mistake. And then the ball found its way to Burrow.
It took just six seconds for him to create the moment that will live with rugby league fans forever. Picking up the ball on the halfway line, he was first faced with the rock-solid wall of St Helens defenders. With nowhere to go, he decided to run at one of the biggest forwards on the pitch and duck. Suddenly he was in the clear, and the crowd began to roar. Then, with forty metres still left to run, he accelerated past a series of chasing defenders and with the full-back running straight towards him, sidestepped him and slid underneath the posts.
It is often on the biggest stage that the greatest players find a way to score at the most crucial moments. It happened to Jonathan Davies for Great Britain in 1994 and to Jason Robinson in the inaugural Grand Final in 1998. The individual brilliance not only matches the occasion but also captures the very essence of what they were about as players. They are the moments destined to be frozen in time and repeated on television for the rest of their lives. And so it came to pass that Rob Burrow had his moment on the biggest stage of all.
It might, however, have not been remembered at all if Burrow had not made another intervention towards the end of the match. With the scores tied at 16-16 with ten minutes to go, Burrow made a break from his own half to set up the match-winning try. The words of veteran Sky Sports commentator Eddie Hemmings summed up the moment perfectly: “Here he goes… Here goes Burrow!… Ohhhhh… Brilliant… Brilliant… Outstanding Rugby League!”
That night, Burrow again won the Harry Sunderland Trophy as Man of the Match, in a unanimous vote of every single journalist. He later told the media that he was “humbled” to win by such a margin. But never has one individual been so influential in determining the course of the league title.
A decade has now passed since he lit up the Theatre of Dreams. This weekend he will be back at Old Trafford to present the Harry Sunderland Trophy to a player from either St Helens or the Catalan Dragons. It should be a weekend for Rob to romanticise and retell the story in the hospitality suites and the pubs of Manchester. But, as most people in Britain are now acutely aware, Rob’s focus is no longer on the sport he loves. Instead, his focus is on his battle with motor neurone disease (MND) and the relentless push to find a miracle cure.
It was just two years after he retired, in 2019, that Rob Burrow was diagnosed with MND, a degenerative condition that affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. He first noticed something was awry when he struggled to say the word “consistency” during an awards evening at the Leeds club. His old teammates joked that he had perhaps had too much to drink. But after mentioning it to his doctor a few days later, he was referred to a neurologist for tests.
It is impossible to imagine what it is like to have your life turned upside down in just a matter of seconds
This was not an unusual referral for a rugby league player who had sustained more shots to the head than most. In Too Many Reasons To Live, Burrow writes heartbreakingly about how he and wife Lindsey met up at Leeds train station before visiting the doctor, laughing and joking that it was probably nothing. But it wasn’t. In the space of a few seconds, about the time it took him to create his magic at Old Trafford, Burrow was told that he would probably have just one or two years to live.
Even after he has documented the impact in such vivid detail, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to have your life turned upside down in just a matter of seconds. At the time, Lindsey had recently given birth to the couple’s third child and they were preparing to start the next phase of their life together. There are powerful moments in the book, such as when Rob writes about watching his children play, knowing that he will never see them grow up, which shed light on the emotional turmoil he goes through on a daily basis.
However, the person that emerges from Too Many Reasons To Live is the same Rob Burrow that rugby league fans were blessed to watch each week for the past two decades. Burrow is a man embracing his battle with MND like he did rugby league: without fear or recrimination.
Each morning, Burrow explains that individuals have a choice. We can turn to social media and the newspapers and soak everything up that’s bad about the world “while bitching or moaning” about the state of things. Or we can decide to “block it all off and do stuff that makes you content”.
In a world where the manufactured outrage of the columnist and the politician is king, Burrow — a man who has every right to be aggrieved at the turn of events — chooses to see the positive in society. This, no doubt, comes from a very humble upbringing in Castleford and a grounding in the rugby league communities that he never left behind: “It would kill me if I found out that anyone thought I was a big-head,” he writes, “because I’d feel like I’d betrayed the values my mum and dad instilled in me.”
It’s those values that have now endeared him to the wider public. In his battle with MND, he has come to the attention of people who have probably never watched a game of rugby league in their life. Piers Morgan, Alan Shearer and his personal hero, Ricky Gervais, are just the latest people to take to social media to support him. His memoir, as the publisher Phil Caplan has observed, is the “most popular rugby league book ever to hit the shelves”.
And with his newfound public profile, Burrow now shoulders a responsibility to communicate the effects of MND, to remove the stigma and to raise awareness for campaigns on behalf of the thousands of people who will never have the chance to tell their story. He is well aware that people now come into hospitals and tell doctors they think they might have “Rob Burrow’s disease”.
Rugby league players, by the nature of the sport, have to be tough on the outside
The decision to allow filmmakers to document his struggle, to write the book with such honesty, and to show himself to the world at his most vulnerable will not have come easy. Rugby league players, by the nature of the sport, have to be tough on the outside. They are usually private people, not used to the scrutiny of football and not used to asking for help. But, by opening himself up to the world on behalf of thousands of others, he has shown himself to be as brave as and as tough as he was when he walked out on the pitch each week.
It is the coach who led Burrow to that first league title, Tony Smith, who remarks that “too often in life, we wait until the tragedy has struck before we pay tribute to people we respect”. If one positive thing has come out of this tragedy, it is that the rugby league community has had the opportunity to reflect on what Burrow did for the game in the course of his own lifetime.
So when the sport descends on Manchester again this Saturday, it should take a moment to reflect on the greatness of his performance a decade ago. Burrow showed us that the game is not just for the giants, but for anybody who has the urge to pick up a ball and run. And it is perhaps now the time to ensure that his legacy and his spirit endures. In future, players will hopefully no longer pick up the Harry Sunderland Trophy at the end of the Grand Final. Those future legends should collect the Rob Burrow Trophy instead.
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