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Rob Burrow, rugby league international who helped to raise millions for MND charities – obituary

Burrow in action for Leeds in 2001

Rob Burrow, who has died aged 41, was an England and Great Britain rugby league international who in December 2019 was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, touching the hearts of television viewers alongside his close friend and former teammate Kevin Sinfield who raised more than £8 million for MND charities.

“Throughout his career Rob overcame the odds to become a legend in the game and he tackled MND with the exact same determination,” said Sinfield.

At 5ft 4in and weighing less than 11 stone, Burrow, who spent his entire 16-year career with Leeds Rhinos, was a Lilliputian in a land of Gullivers, the smallest player in Super League, but he won 15 international caps and earned the tabloid nicknames “mighty atom” and “pocket rocket”. His spirit and courage on the rugby field continued after his retirement when he was diagnosed with MND.

Burrow made 493 appearances for Leeds between 2001 and 2017, scoring 198 tries and kicking 162 goals for a total of 1,111 points. In a golden era for Leeds, Burrow won eight Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Championships against Australian sides.

In the 2011 Grand Final victory over St Helens at Old Trafford he became the first player to win the Harry Sunderland Trophy for man of the match twice, earning the unanimous vote of all 37 judges. His try in that victory is regarded as one of the finest of all time when, with his lightning pace, he sidestepped, weaved and ducked past stunned defenders on a bewitching long-range run.

Burrow in action for Leeds in 2001

Burrow in action for Leeds in 2001 – Mike Brett

Burrow never took a backward step and his spirit was epitomised during a Cup tie against Hull in 2010. Despite his diminutive size he was not afraid to trade punches with the 6ft 5in Tongan forward Epalahame Lauaki and was sin-binned for his misdemeanour, to the amusement of the crowd.

Despite being unable to talk in recent years and relying on a machine to communicate Burrow never lost his smile or his cheeky persona.

Robert Geoffrey Burrow was born in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, on September 26 1982 to Geoff and Irene; he had two sisters. He attended Airedale High School and began playing rugby league aged seven for Castleford Panthers. He joined Leeds in his teens and enjoyed a rapid rise. “He may have been small but nobody could catch him, he was so fast,” his mother recalled. “We used to hope they wouldn’t catch him up because everyone else was huge.”

After establishing himself in the Leeds senior team he was named player of the series in Great Britain’s 3-0 victory over New Zealand in 2007, finishing top scorer with 26 points from two tries and nine goals.

He played alongside his friend Kevin Sinfield in five Challenge Cup finals between 2010 and 2015, losing the first three before winning the last two. His final match was the 2017 Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford when Leeds beat Castleford.

Kevin Sinfield carries his friend and former teammate Rob Burrow across the finish line of the Leeds Marathon in 2023

Kevin Sinfield carries his friend and former teammate Rob Burrow across the finish line of the Leeds Marathon in 2023 – Danny Lawson/PA

Burrow was diagnosed with MND two years later. His wife Lindsey, a physiotherapist, became his carer.

“I expected to be told I had something that could be treated and move on, and it was a shock when the doctor told me I had an incurable illness,” he recalled. “The hardest bit is that you do not know why you have it and there is nothing you can do. Maybe it’s the athlete in all of us. I didn’t want to lie down and take it. I wanted to compete.”

Sinfield, who was appointed MBE in 2014, OBE in 2021 and CBE in 2024, ran seven marathons in seven days a year after Burrow’s diagnosis to raise £2 million. He then ran 101 miles in under 24 hours before another seven ultra marathons, starting at Murrayfield, and finishing at Old Trafford at half-time during the Rugby League World Cup final in 2022.

In May 2023 Burrow and Sinfield completed the inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon when Burrow was famously lifted out of his specially adapted wheelchair and carried over the finishing line by Sinfield – an image that brought tears to the eyes of many television viewers.

Burrow with his wife Lindsey following his appointment as MBE in 2022

Burrow with his wife Lindsey following his appointment as MBE in 2022 – Steve Parsons/AFP/Getty

“I told Rob he was not going to beat me, we are finishing together,” said Sinfield. “Rob then kissed me on the cheek and it felt like scoring in a Grand Final again.”

Sinfield, who joined the coaching staff of England rugby union’s team, was inspired by fellow sporting MND sufferers Doddie Weir and the former Bradford City footballer Stephen Darby. Weir, who won 61 caps for Scotland’s rugby union side, died in 2022 aged 52.

That year, Burrow and Sinfield were awarded the freedom of the City of Leeds for their services to the MND community.

Burrow’s wife Lindsey raised more than £61k by running the Leeds Marathon alongside his former teammates Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Jamie Peacock and Barrie McDermott.

Rob Burrow was awarded the MBE in 2021 for his services to rugby league and the MND community. He is survived by Lindsey and by their two daughters and a son.

Rob Burrow, born September 26 1982, died June 2 2024

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