When it was made public that Rob Burrow had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in December 2019, it shocked Rugby League to its core. This was a man who had conquered Super League, and the world, with the now fabled ‘Golden Generation’ of the Rhinos who had a style of play all his own. Wicked speed and dexterity, plus strength that far outweighed his size, meant that he could run rings around defenders and very often make breaks by ducking under the arms of the opposition. It takes a very special type of player who can turn an apparent disadvantage (his height) into one of his strengths. Because of this, as well as may other reasons, Rob Burrow is rightly regarded as one of the best players of the game.
In the first television interview Rob did with the BBC, he was his usual upbeat self, further showing the mental toughness that Rugby League players seem to have when faced with unimaginable odds. But when he was asked about how his family are coping, his wife and three young children, plus his Mum and Dad, he broke down. Even being dealt a hand that others would crumble under, he was still the same self-less human being that he always had been. He wasn’t concerned with himself; he was just worried about his family. Kevin Sinfield was there to support him and the image of the two former team-mates and firm friends embracing was an image that tugged at the heart-strings of rugby fans to the point of breaking.
Quickly, Jamie Jones-Buchanan offered up his upcoming double testimonial as a platform for awareness for MND, and to help raise money for Rob, further highlighting the close-knit relationship that the ‘Golden Generation’ had. Let’s go back and re-live that day.
Stood in the Carnegie Stand at Emerald Headingley, my pre-match beverage in hand doing little against the bitterness of the afternoon, surrounded by blue and amber, looking out on a packed away stand of Bradford supporters, made me nothing other than nostalgic. As a boy there was no game that ever came close to playing Bradford and nothing like the feeling of when we beat them. The flip-side to that though was that there was no feeling like losing to them either!
After the Bulls’ huge fall from grace from being crowned World Champions in 2006, to being relegated into League 1 for the 2018 season, it was nothing short of uplifting to see them on the move in the Championship and back at Emerald Headingley. To add to this sense of reminiscence, fans were told that Bradford had paid to play in the game, all in aid of the Rob Burrow Foundation. A truly chivalrous gesture from our former enemies. Old rivalries, friendships and memories would be out in force between players and fans alike and at kick off, the atmosphere was electric. The main headline though? Former players from both clubs would take to the field once more in honour of Rob. It was a chance to see it all again! 20,000 fans would witness a game that will never be repeated.
The first-half passed by quickly and everyone was caught up in what they were seeing- a chance to relive the joint glory days of both clubs. The game flowed and was contested well but the tension in the stadium was steadily building. After half time it could be seen on the pitch as well; players looked nervous and skittish. More and more fans caught themselves looking away from the game to the dugouts in the Emerald North Stand, watching to see if they could catch a glimpse of a flash of amber or a flicker of red under a trench coat…or a certain bald head. (It was brilliant to hear the South Stand start up with Keith Senior’s song again after so long!). Watches and phones were checked constantly, cameras were at the ready and everyone waited for the ‘Legends’ to take the field.
Then, they came. Within the next ten minutes true titans of the game ran out to join reflections of their younger selves. Within five minutes, Jamie Peacock was already bandaged and bloodied after suffering a split eyebrow and Kylie Leuluai had put on one of the hits of the season, making everyone question why he had retired at the end of 2015. In other words, it was business as usual for Rhinos fans. Then everything seemed to go into slow motion as Rob appeared on the big screen. In that split second it was made fully clear to everyone what this game was truly about. Rob Burrow, carrying out his son Jackson at Headingley for the first time, crying… It is one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever seen. The rest of the game was seen through ripples by everyone.
Even though I was watching Rob Burrow and all of the other Legends, harking back to some of the most exciting times in my childhood, I could not help feeling that the event was surrounded by sadness. I had watched Rob Burrow all of my memorable life and he was (he still is) my favourite player- that will never change. There was just no one else like him! But to see him now, having lost a lot of his bulk and struggling to pass the ball but still trying to keep up, I knew that this wasn’t something that my hero would recover from. I think that was the biggest thing for me to cope with; that this was the first thing that Rob Burrow, THE Rob Burrow, wouldn’t be able to overcome. It felt like the dying embers of my childhood had finally been extinguished.
Never have Rugby League fans witnessed anything like this before. It was such a showing of friendship and sportsmanship that was brought together so rapidly, so unequivocally, and in such different circumstances. Yes, the emotion and feeling after a final win is almost unparalleled, but this was completely different. The scoreline didn’t matter and player performance didn’t matter but the match was still incredible. How often can that be said about a match?
It brought together not only Bradford and Leeds fans, but supporters from Super League and even Championship clubs. All for the sake of showing their collective support for a man who had been the benchmark of any scrum-half on the eve of the biggest battle of his life. It was also a chance for Rob to see how much support he actually had, something which I hope he has never forgotten in the days since. This game, quite simply, broke boundaries. It showed us that there was something far bigger than the sport, but still with the sense that something positive could come out of it in terms of fundraising for the MND Association, and for Rob.
In the following fifteen months, where people have been separated from loved ones and friends, this collective support that Rob has had since shows us what truly matters in all our lives – family and friends. This has been felt no less keenly by the man himself and the MND Association. Since that day, the Rugby League community not only here, but around the world have shown themselves to be the greatest of fans. Yes, we argue with each other. Yes, in the stands we hurl banter at each other. But when something like this happens, it brings out the best in us all as a sport.
We become aware that there are things that go far above our places as fans of this club, or supporters of that club, and we come together as a united front. It is very rare when there is a game where everyone is on the same side. But on this occasion, we were all on the side of a man who gave the best years of his life to us, so now it’s our job to give him the best, and last, years of his.
As a final thought, what that game was, was a showcase for our own morality. It showed us that not even the greatest are invincible, nor the mightiest untouchable, but they can stand a bit stronger when supported. A true life lesson. That is why this game, and all it stands for, should be considered as one of the greatest rugby league matches of all time.