Nearly 20,000 Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls fans turned out to support Rob Burrow in his battle with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) as the rugby league great was reduced to tears in his final appearance for his lifelong club.
Burrow was told before Christmas that he has MND, an illness that there is currently no cure for and vastly reduces life expectancy as it attacks the brain and nervous system to the point that muscles no longer work.
The 37-year-old was able to make one last outing for Leeds on Sunday as he played a part in teammate Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s testimonial, but while the recently-retired second row was able to bring the curtain down on his own career, the shared platform with Burrow to help raise funds to tackle MND very much became the story of the day.
Despite the devastating circumstances surrounding the event, the pre-season game against Bradford became a celebration of everything that is Rob Burrow. Fans of the rival clubs united to sing “There’s only one Rob Burrow” during his post-match speech, which reduced the former scrum-half to tears, while a number of Leeds greats joined him and Jones-Buchanan in one last outing.
With 10 minutes to go in the match, the legends took their cue to walk out of the tunnel to great applause, with the pair joined by Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield, Danny Maguire and Kylie Leuluai. Even Keith Senior, Burrow’s teammate with Leeds, England and Great Britain who had denied all week that he would be donning the Rhinos kit one last time, made an appearance to much rapture.
So far Burrow’s fund has helped raise more than £262,000 that will support him and his family, who joined the rugby league legend for the special day. Burrow walked out before kick-off holding son Jackson, one, with daughters Macy (eight) and Maya (four) running in front.
Burrow was visibly emotional as he walked out ahead of kick-off, but there were few dry eyes left inside Headingley when he took to the field in the 76th minute for a final cameo. Embraced first by Richie Myler, players flooded towards him for their own special moment before he took the ball for the restart. Fans were visibly in tears, with some players also seen welling up, and the emotion poured out after the full-time whistle.
"I was tired but I absolutely loved every minute of it,” said Burrow. "You don't know how much it means, no words will come close to describing how I feel right now. Thank you so much."
“I struggle with my words now, but I’m overwhelmed and humbled. This really meant something to me. I struggled out there: I said before the game that I had a big five minutes left in me but, obviously, I was wrong, but it felt wonderful.
"In rugby league we stay together and look after our own. Today was an example of what our game is all about.
"I'm not one for the limelight but it's been a big day. After this I've got some stuff tomorrow and when that settles it's back to normal life. That's changing nappies and a bit of coaching and the sooner I get back to that the better. But how can you not enjoy a day like today."
The ‘Leeds legends’ were not the only ex-players to turn out, with Robbie Hunter-Paul and Stuart Fielden also returning for Bradford, who incredibly donated their share of the match to Burrow’s fund despite their ongoing financial plight. Leeds clinched a 34-10 victory over their close rivals, though the scoreline was even more significant than usual in a pre-season friendly as the sport came together to support one of its own – so much so that the togetherness shown around Burrow put this match above all the wins, the trophies and the success as Jones-Buchanan’s career highlight.
"I think it's probably the greatest moment of my career, I won't lie, in the way that everybody's rallied around Rob tonight and come together," he said. "A group of boys who have spent 20 years fighting tooth and nail – being dragged to the bottom and to the heights of Grand Final elation.
"It's all about team spirit. Whatever happens now, in a billion years nobody can ever change what this group has achieved. In times of adversity, when things have been difficult, the boys have never forsaken or left anybody behind.
"The greatest symbol of that has been tonight and the way that some of those boys who have not played for a long time – rugby league's not an easy game to come out and play – have come out and played for Rob.