Rob Burrow has a poignant message for the Leeds Rhinos players stepping out at Old Trafford for tonight’s Grand Final.
‘None of us know what twist and turns our journey in life will take,’ says the eight-time Super League champion. ‘So make sure you enjoy the special moments when they are in front of you.’
Burrow, more than anyone, knows the importance of savouring every second.
The 5ft 5in former scrum half was in the last Leeds side to win a Grand Final in 2017. That victory over Castleford was also his final match before retiring and he ranks lifting the trophy alongside departing captain Danny McGuire as one of the proudest moments of his career.
Rob Burrow(left) has told Leeds Rhinos stars to enjoy every moment of their career ahead of their Grand Final clash
However, just two years later, and having moved into coaching with the Rhinos academy, Burrow was tragically diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He now uses a wheelchair and has lost the ability to speak. To communicate, including for this interview, he uses a piece of technology called Eyegaze, where he controls a keyboard with his eye movement.
Yet one thing that has not changed during Burrow’s battle with the terminal illness is his passion for his former club. Immediately after the Rhinos won at Wigan in last week’s play-off semi-final, he tweeted he was ‘absolutely buzzing for the lads’.
Now, two days before he turns 40, Burrow hopes Leeds can give him an early birthday present by beating St Helens at Old Trafford. It is something he knows a thing or two about. Of the Rhinos’ eight Grand Final wins – and Burrow was involved in all of them – four came against the Saints, in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
‘The rivalry with Saints was pretty intense, but that always brought the best out of both teams when we met,’ Burrow recalls to Sportsmail. ‘I was just very fortunate to be part of that Golden Generation at Leeds and I was proud to be part of a special group of players who achieved our childhood dreams together. Those memories with my mates is what I treasure the most.’
Rhinos fans also treasure Burrow’s individual brilliance, not least his try in the 2011 final, which is widely considered the greatest ever in a Grand Final. He received the ball on the halfway line and ducked and weaved his way past five Saints players before diving under the posts. Burrow is still the only player to win the Harry Sunderland Trophy for man of the match with the unanimous vote of all 37 judges.
‘It’s hard to forget that moment, especially at this time of year when it gets played so much… not that I am complaining!’ laughs Burrow. ‘The try itself was just a bit of instinct. I always was able to play off the cuff from when I was kid, usually trying to avoid getting clattered by a bigger player!
Burrow was a Super League champion eight times in his career before retiring in 2017
‘I just spotted two big men and ducked between them. I was then into auto pilot and managed to get around Paul Wellens and then get to the line just before the chasing defender.’
Burrow’s moment of magic helped Leeds become the first side to lift the Grand Final trophy after finishing fifth in the table, a feat they repeated the following season. Now the class of 2022 are 80 minutes away from becoming champions from fifth again, having also won at Catalans and Wigan in the play-offs just like they did in 2012.
‘It is spooky how similar it is,’ admits Burrow. ‘Back then, we also had to go away from home in the play-offs with everyone writing us off.
‘The difference then was that we had belief we could do it having won multiple Grand Finals before. But this current group are writing their own history and clearly have a lot of belief too.
Burrow scored a sensational try to help Leeds to victory against St Helens in the 2011 final
‘We always used to say, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts” and they are following through that old mantra now.
‘They have done incredibly well over the last few months to turn their season around. I am particularly pleased for the young players, having worked with many of them when they first joined the club.’
Leeds’ revival has followed the appointment of Rohan Smith as boss in April, at a time when they were only a point off the bottom of the table. The Aussie is the nephew of Tony Smith, who led Burrow’s Rhinos to glory as coach in 2005 and 2007.
‘Rohan has done a great job,’ says Burrow. ‘His uncle was a wonderful coach and I loved every minute playing under him. From the outside looking in, Rohan, like his uncle, seems to have got that trust from the players. They believe in what he is asking them to do and you can see that on the field.’
The 39-year-old hailed the appointment of Rohan Smith, who has won nine of his last ten games in charge of the club
Leeds have won 13 of their 18 Super League games under Smith, including nine of their last 10. Kristian Woolf’s Saints, however, topped the table in the regular season and are aiming to become the first side to win four straight Grand Finals and make it a record 10 titles altogether.
‘St Helens have been the dominant team for the last three years and have deservedly been champions during that period,’ adds Burrow. ‘But if Leeds can get the title back they will certainly have deserved it.
‘Grand Finals are tremendous occasions, especially with the army of Leeds fans trekking across to Old Trafford making a racket. Even though I won’t be at Old Trafford, I’ll certainly be there in spirit and watching on the television. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.’
Rob’s friend and former captain Kevin Sinfield will reveal on Monday his latest challenge to raise awareness and funds for the MND community, to coincide with Rob’s 40th birthday.