Former Leeds Rhinos and England captain Kevin Sinfield has hailed the “unbelievable" show of support for Rob Burrow, whose benefit game on Sunday will be attended by a sell-out crowd.
The legendary scrum-half, who won eight Super League titles during his Leeds Rhinos career, was recently diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease.
But the sport of rugby league gets the opportunity to come together in support of Burrow on Sunday when Leeds host Bradford Bulls at Emerald Headingley, and the match – initially scheduled as a testimonial for Burrow’s former teammate Jamie Jones-Buchanan – will be attended by a sold-out attendance of over 20,000.
“What Rob’s facing is going to be one hell of a challenge but I think what’s pretty clear is that he’s not going to do it alone, there’s going to be an army of rugby league fans alongside him every step of the way. And on behalf of the club, and on behalf of Rob and his family, I can only thank them for that because they’ve made a real difference to him,” Sinfield, now Director of Rugby for the Rhinos, told The Sportsman.
“And that isn’t financial – I know the financial response has been unbelievable – but the messages of support he’s had, the messages we’ve all had, from people of all clubs from the game, from administrators, coaches, players, supporters, from people outside the sport as well, it has been just unbelievable.”
Burrow, 37, retired from rugby league after winning the 2017 Grand Final with Leeds, but it was announced in December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with MND, which currently has no cure.
Yet the 5ft 4in former England half-back, who will don the Leeds shirt for one final run-out in Sunday's fixture, has shown a fantastic attitude to his predicament, drawing special praise from Sinfield.
“That’s who he is. I think he’s faced some difficult times before, probably none so difficult as what he’s facing now. But he’s always fronted up. He’s always seen the positive. He’s always pulled himself together and dusted himself off and decided: ‘I’m going to make the best of this.’ And it’s been truly inspirational for all of us to see,” adds Sinfield.
“We just didn’t expect this reaction from him, not to be as positive as he is. It’s remarkable. We are all truly inspired by the way he has conducted himself. Attitude’s a brilliant word because he’s been a giant through this.”
The club and rugby league authorities have been inundated with offers of support since Burrow's diagnosis, and Sinfield believes that the ticket sales for Sunday’s game and the variety of other fundraising drives are simply a reflection of the enormous respect Burrow earned throughout the sport during his playing career.
“He was unbelievable on the field. He might have been small in stature but was an absolute giant in key moments for the team," he adds. "He always delivered, and I think opposition supporters, players and coaches respected that. Because to look at, to see a guy of that stature walk on to a rugby field made a lot of people wonder what on earth they were viewing, but he very, very quickly answered every single question.
“There’s absolute respect for him. Off the field, he’s the nicest bloke you could meet, he’s very respectful, he’s funny, he’s honest, he’s a big family man, and that’s why the response has been so big, because he is hugely, hugely respected.
“There are just that many people who want to help, it’s brilliant. That’s why the game in the short term was a way of saying to people: ‘Let’s get together and celebrate Rob’s career, let’s celebrate Rob as a man.’ And that’s not forgetting Jamie Jones. Jamie’s had a remarkable career and fully deserves the support as well.
“When we heard of the diagnosis, the first thing was to think: ‘What can we do, how can we help?’ It was mentioned to Jamie about this game and he absolutely snapped our hands off at the chance to share it with Rob.”
Sunday’s game - which kicks off at 3pm - is set to be the first of many fundraising initiatives organised by both the Leeds Rhinos and rugby league in general, with a Virgin Money Giving page set up for Burrow having almost reached the initial target of £250,000 in just a few weeks.