Rob Burrow obituary

The Leeds Rhinos, England and Great Britain rugby league international Rob Burrow, who has died aged 41, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2019 and rose to wider public prominence in the following years, raising money for MND charities and lobbying the government to increase funding into research, treatment and care facilities. He died of complications from the disease.

Before his diagnosis, Burrow had spent his entire 17-year playing career with one club, Leeds Rhinos, earning the nickname “Mighty Atom” for his diminutive stature – at just under 5ft 5in (165cm) and weighing less than 11st (70kg), he was by far the smallest player of his era. Turning out at either scrum-half or hooker in a sport where size and bulk are usually of paramount importance, Burrow won eight Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Championships in 492 appearances for his club, scoring 196 tries and kicking 157 goals and five drop-goals.

He won two Harry Sunderland Trophies for player-of-the-match performances in the 2007 and 2011 Super League Grand Finals at Old Trafford, Manchester. His try in the latter match was a microcosm of the attacking dummy-half’s art, ducking and weaving his way through tackle after tackle on a dash to the line, and is regarded as one of the sport’s greatest scores. The 37 judges of the trophy that year were unanimous in their choice of Burrow. Earlier this year, the Rugby Football League announced that the Harry Sunderland Trophy would be renamed the Rob Burrow Award.

Burrow also played five times for Great Britain and was a member of the 2008 and 2013 England Rugby League World Cup squads. In 2007 he was awarded the George Smith Medal as player of the series after his 26 points helped Great Britain whitewash New Zealand 3-0.

Born in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Burrow was the youngest of the three children, and the only son, of Geoffrey, a secretary in the GMB trade union, and his wife, Irene (nee Bateman). He was educated at Airedale high school where his parents, struggling to cope with his boisterous nature, encouraged him to take up rugby at the age of seven.

Burrow with his former team-mate Kevin Sinfield, 2021. Photograph: George Wood/Getty Images

As a junior he played for Castleford Panthers before moving on to amateur open-age rugby at Featherstone Lions, where his speed and elusiveness brought him to the attention of scouts at the Leeds Rhinos rugby league academy.

He signed professional terms for the club in 1999, making his first-team Super League debut in April 2001 against Hull FC. By season’s end he had been named Super League young player of the year. He would regularly feature in the end-of-season Super League Dream Team throughout his career and was inducted into the Leeds Rhinos Hall of Fame in 2020. He had already received confirmation of his MND the year before, shortly after taking up a coaching role with the Rhinos.

Describing the shock of his diagnosis – he was initially given two years to live – Burrow said: “As an athlete you are used to injury, and then you recover and carry on as before. With MND I couldn’t do that. But I did decide immediately that, like an athlete, I would tackle the challenge head-on and carry on competing like I had before.” His wife Lindsey, an NHS physiotherapist, whom he had married in 2006, became his carer.

Burrow had played for most of his career alongside Kevin Sinfield, his team-mate and Leeds Rhinos captain, and it would be his relationship with his long-standing friend that would come to define the latter part of his life and bring him to wider national attention. Together they raised more than £15m for MND charities as Burrow became, along with Sinfield, the former rugby union player Doddie Weir and the footballer Stephen Darby, the public face of those living with MND.

He featured in the award-winning BBC documentary Rob Burrow: Living with MND (2022), which told the story of his worsening condition and the impact it had on his wife and family, as he lost the ability to move and speak. His book Too Many Reasons to Live won autobiography of the year at the 2022 Sports Book awards. He also co-authored two books with Sinfield: With You Every Step (2023) and Try: A Picture Book About Friendship (2024) – the latter written for children – celebrating male friendship and empathy.

In the meantime Sinfield continued to raise funds in Burrow’s name by undertaking numerous endurance running challenges. In November 2022, he ran seven back-to-back ultramarathons culminating at Old Trafford. Before that, in 2020, he completed seven marathons in seven days and in 2021 ran 101 miles in 24 hours from the home of Leicester Tigers rugby union club to Headingley, home of Leeds Rhinos. Last year the pair created an enduring television image by completing the inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon together, with Sinfield embracing his friend and lifting him from his wheelchair to carry him over the finishing line.

Burrow was appointed MBE in 2021 for services to rugby league and people with motor neurone disease, elevated to CBE in 2024, as was Sinfield. They were presented with their awards by the Prince of Wales at a special investiture held at Headingley because Burrow was too unwell to travel to London.

Building work on the Rob Burrow Centre for Motor Neurone Disease in Leeds, for which he had already raised £6m, started the morning after his death.

Burrow is survived by Lindsey, their daughters, Maya and Macy, and son, Jackson, and by his parents and two sisters.

Robert Geoffrey Burrow, rugby league player and motor neurone disease campaigner, born 26 September 1982; died 2 June 2024

The Guardian