FIVE-TIME champion Rob Burrow can’t quite believe he is preparing for his testimonial game.
Burrow will take centre stage when Leeds Rhinos face Featherstone Rovers at Headingley Carnegie tonight – almost 11 years after his debut on the same ground as a 19-year-old substitute in a defeat by Hull on April 6, 2001.
He scored his first try six days later on his full debut, away to Warrington in what was current Featherstone coach Daryl Powell’s first game as Leeds team boss.
Burrow has gone on to enjoy a glittering career which includes five Grand Final triumphs, two of them as man of the match, as well as two World Club Challenges, a brace of league leaders’ shields and 14 full international caps.
Even so, at just 29 Burrow admitted: “It’s weird, I still can’t believe I have played 10 years at the club. It is a strange feeling, it doesn’t feel like it’s true.
“I am really chuffed I have been here so long and I’ve been granted a testimonial. I want to thank everyone who has supported me, in my testimonial and my career and for me there’s no better club to play in my testimonial than Featherstone.”
Burrow was a mixed up kid before he became a professional sportsman. “I lived in Castleford, supported Leeds and played for Featherstone Juniors,” he explained.
“I played all my junior rugby there so I’ve always had a passion for Fev, but I’ve never played against them in the first team.
“I played there in the academy once and I did watch when they absolutely spanked our team in a pre-season game last year.
“We had quite a few experienced people in there, people like Chris Clarkson and Ryan Hall, so we are anticipating a tough game this time.”
Tonight’s clash of the reigning Super League and Co-op Championship Grand Final kings is an important game for Rhinos, who kick off their title defence in exactly two weeks’ time.
Burrow said: “We are almost full strength and this is our major friendly.
“It means a lot to us. Regardless of it being my testimonial it is a big one for us as a team.
“I played on Boxing Day and we had quite a strong team out then, but all the international guys are back now and we are treating this like our first league game of the year.”
Testimonials are a time for reflection. Looking back over his decade in the senior team, Burrow doesn’t have to turn the clock back too far to find his highlight.
“The last month of last season,” he said.
“It finished great for me personally, but we had people writing us off and the belief in the team was fantastic.
“I wouldn’t say we were unstoppable – that sounds arrogant – but there was nothing going to get in our way, we were so determined.
“Then the way it finished for me was a dream come true. A lot of people ask me what’s my highlight and also what’s the best try I have scored? It all happened in the last month of last season.”
Burrow has also had his bad spells and admitted there is often a fine line between the two.
He said: “There have been times when I’ve been on the bench, I’ve wanted to progress and it wasn’t really happening.
“Last year, when I was put on the bench, that was one of the lowest points of my career – but the highest at the same time, so it was a weird year for me.
“I tasted some highs and lows, but in the end it all worked out and the way it finished was fantastic.
“But I did have some bad spells, with the way the team was going as well. The one thing I won’t miss about rugby is the emotion of winning or losing.
“We had a lot of losses last year and there were a lot of weekends when I might not have got much game time or we had lost.
“It was really testing, but the way it ended it didn’t really matter what happened up to then.”
Burrow was a regular substitute over the final third of last season, but will start at scrum-half tonight.
He has spoken to boss Brian McDermott about his role this season and declared himself “happy” with the outcome.
“I want to be out there, but it is all about competition for places,” he said. “I want to start, Brian knows that, but it is up to me to make him want to pick me to start.
“I am just going to knuckle down and do what’s best for the team, like I did last year.”
Leeds Rhinos: Webb, Smith, Watkins, Hardaker, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Bailey, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Ablett. Subs Hauraki, Hood, Griffin, Moore, Clarkson.
Featherstone Rovers: Hardman, Raynor, Smeaton, Ropati, Saxton, Kain, Finn, Dickens, Kaye, Lockwood, Grayshon, Spears, Dale. Subs Bostock, Mvududu, Haley, Freer, Grimshaw, Worthington, Carr, Ormondroyd, Bussey.
Referee: George Stokes (Wigan).
Kick-off: Tonight, 8pm.