Rob Burrow: Rugby league icon who valiantly fought against motor neurone disease

Rob Burrow: Rugby league icon who valiantly fought against motor neurone disease

Rob Burrow, the scrum-half known for his little stature, defied expectations to become a rugby league legend. He left a lasting impact on the sport with his extraordinary talent and brave fight against Motor Neurone Disease.

Despite his life being tragically cut short in 2024 at the age of 41, his relentless spirit and dedication to raising MND awareness continue to inspire many. This is the story of Rob Burrow, a true champion both on and off the field.

Rob Burrow biography

Rob Burrow smile
Photo: Sky News

Rob Burrow played as a scrum-half in rugby and became a giant in the Rugby League. He had an upbringing that mirrored the fighting spirit he displayed on the pitch. Born in Pontefract, Yorkshire, in 1982, Burrow’s early life was steeped in the sport. Rugby League was not just a game; it was woven into the fabric of his hometown.

Burrow’s physical stature, however, presented a challenge. Standing at a mere 5ft 5in and weighing less than 154 pounds, he was constantly told he was too small for the demands of the sport.

The son of Irene and Geoffrey Burrow, a branch secretary for the GMB trade union, the younger Burrow was raised in Castleford and had two older sisters. He attended Airedale High School. His rugby league career began at the age of seven with the Castleford Panthers and he later played at the junior level for the Featherstone Lions.

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Rob Burrow career

Rob Burrow on the pitch
Photo: AP

Burrow’s talent blossomed at 17 when he landed a coveted spot in the Leeds Rhinos academy. His debut came in April 2001, stepping off the bench in a losing battle against Hull. A week later, he earned his first starting nod and even managed to score a try although Leeds fell short again, this time, to Warrington Wolves.

With the team’s main scrum-half sidelined by injury, Burrow grabbed his chance. He strung together a string of impressive performances, including a dazzling double against the reigning champions, St Helens. These standout displays earned him the prestigious Super League Young Player of the Year award at the season’s end.

In 2003, Burrow tasted his first final action, coming on as a substitute in the Challenge Cup Final against Bradford Bulls. However, a nasty first-half concussion forced him off the pitch, and a narrow 22-20 scoreline edged out Leeds.

Burrow played a supporting role in Leeds’ 2004 Super League Grand Final victory over the Bradford Bulls. He continued to contribute from the bench on the world stage, scoring a try in the 2005 World Club Challenge win against Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.

That year, he also featured in the Challenge Cup Final (a loss to Hull FC) and the Super League Grand Final (another defeat to Bradford Bulls). Despite these setbacks, his consistent excellence earned him a well-deserved spot in the Super League Dream Team for 2005.

Burrow’s brilliance continued to shine. He was named Leeds Rhinos Player of the Year in 2007 and, once again, selected for the Super League Dream Team. He cemented his legend with a man-of-the-match performance in the 2007 Super League Grand Final, leading Leeds to a dominant 33-6 victory over St Helens and claiming the Harry Sunderland Award in the process.

Burrow’s stellar form continued, securing him a place in the 2008 Dream Team and playing a pivotal role in securing back-to-back Grand Final wins for Leeds over St Helens in 2008 and 2009.

The next few years saw Burrow rack up an impressive five Challenge Cup Final appearances between 2010 and 2015. While Leeds suffered heartbreaking losses in three consecutive finals from 2010 to 2012, they finally found redemption with victories in 2014 and 2015.

The 2011 Grand Final saw Burrow etch his name even deeper into Rugby League history. His remarkable solo try from 50 metres out is still considered one of the greatest Grand Final moments ever.

This phenomenal display earned him a unanimous vote for Man of the Match and his second Harry Sunderland Award. He capped off his incredible career with yet more Grand Final victories for Leeds, defeating Warrington Wolves in 2012 and Wigan Warriors in 2015.

Burrow bowed out in style in 2017, leading Leeds Rhinos to victory over Castleford Tigers in his final Super League Grand Final match. It was a fitting end to a career overflowing with trophies and individual accolades.

Just a month after receiving a Motor Neurone Disease (MND) diagnosis in January 2020, Burrow defied the odds with a one-match return to professional Rugby League. The game, originally planned as a tribute match for retired teammate Jamie Jones-Buchanan, was transformed into a joint celebration and fundraiser.

Renamed the “Jamie Jones-Buchanan Testimonial and Rob Burrow Support Match”, the event showcased both players’ careers while raising vital funds for MND charities. The match itself was a display of solidarity. The Leeds Rhinos first team took the field alongside several retired legends, including former teammates of Jones-Buchanan and Burrow, who all came out of retirement for this special occasion.

Burrow entered the game as a substitute with just five minutes left, a symbolic gesture marking his emotional return despite his condition. The night ended on a high note, with Leeds securing a convincing 34-10 victory.

International career

Burrow’s talents were not confined to the club scene. He made his grand entrance for Great Britain in the opening clash of the 2005 Tri-Nations against New Zealand. While he was included in the squad for the 2006 edition, he didn’t see any action on the field.

June 2007 saw Burrow receive a call-up for a Great Britain test match against France. Later that year, he became a pivotal figure in their dominant 3-0 series win over New Zealand in the Gillette Fusion series. His phenomenal performance earned him the prestigious George Smith Medal as the player of the series. He even topped the points scorers’ chart, racking up 26 points with two tries and a cool nine goals.

Burrow’s international career continued with a selection for the England squad at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup held in Australia. He started at scrum-half in their opening Group A match against Papua New Guinea, helping England secure a win. A rib injury, however, sidelined him from England’s 2011 Four Nations campaign.

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Rob Burrow stats

Rob Burrow
Photo: Sky News

Here is a breakdown of Burrow’s achievements:

Club level:

  • Super League Champion (8 times): 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017.
  • League Leader’s Shield (3 times): 2004, 2009, 2015.
  • Challenge Cup Winner (2 times): 2014, 2015.
  • World Club Challenge Champion (3 times): 2005, 2008, 2012.

Individual accolades

  • Young Player of the Year (2001)
  • Harry Sunderland Trophy (2 times)
  • Super League Dream Team (3 times): 2005, 2007, 2008.
  • Leeds Rhinos Hall of Fame Induction (2020).

Rob Burrow’s net worth

According to reports, Burrow had an estimated net worth of $5 million.

Rob Burrow family

Rob Burrow's family
Photo: Ben Lack Photography

Burrow got married to his wife, Lindsey, in 2006. Their love story goes back even further as they met when they were both 15 years old. The couple had two daughters, Macy and Maya, and a son named Jackson.

Rob Burrow age

Burrow was born on September 26, 1982. He died at the age of 41.

Rob Burrow death

Tragedy struck in December 2019 when Burrow revealed a heartbreaking diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Despite a valiant fight, his health took a complicated turn and led to his death on June 2, 2024, at Pinderfields Hospital. He was just 41 years old.

Here is a look at the prestigious honours he received in recognition of his achievements and his fight against MND:

  • Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE): Awarded in the 2021 New Year Honours list, this recognition celebrated his contributions to Rugby League and raising awareness for Motor Neurone Disease.
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE): This even higher honour came in the 2024 New Year Honours, further acknowledging his tireless efforts in raising awareness for MND.
  • Honorary Doctorate of Sport Science: Leeds Beckett University bestowed this prestigious degree upon him in recognition of his sporting achievements.
  • BBC Sports Personality of the Year Helen Rollason Award (2022): This award, named after a sports presenter who battled cancer, honoured Burrow’s exceptional spirit and resilience in the face of his MND diagnosis.

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