Leeds Rhinos legend Rob Burrow shows his fighting spirit in new documentary on life with MND

ONLY NINE months ago Rob Burrow made an emotional final playing appearance in front of a full house at Emerald Headingley, weeks after revealing he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND).

Monday, 12th October 2020, 5:34 pm
Rob Burrow with his son, Jackson. Picture: Steve Riding.
Rob Burrow with his son, Jackson. Picture: Steve Riding.

Now, one of Leeds Rhinos’ and Super League’s favourite sons, greatest talents and genuinely nicest people is in a wheelchair.

At first glance it is difficult to relate the Rob Burrow of October 2020 with the fleet-footed athlete who, in the same month eight years ago, scored the greatest individual try ever seen in a Grand Final.

But appearances can be deceiving and as the BBC documentary, Rob Burrow: My Year with MND, illustrates, the fighting spirit, determination and courage which made the former scrum-half one of the most respected figures in the game is still very much intact.

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Close friend and former team-mate Kevin Sinfield has been supporting Rob Burrow since his MND diagnosis. Picture: Steve Riding.

Television cameras have followed Burrow’s story since his diagnosis was revealed last December and he has become a regular guest on BBC Breakfast, where a clear bond has developed with presenter Sally 

The documentary – to be broadcast this evening – is the result of that and a hugely important, highly emotional, 30 minutes of screen time.

More than once, interviewees – including Burrow’s wife Lindsey, father Geoff and former team-mate and now Rhinos’ director of rugby Kevin Sinfield – break down in tears as they contemplate what the 38-year-old, who was born and still lives in Pontefract, is going through.

Be warned, viewers will too, whichever team they follow.

Scottish rugby union legend and MND campaigner Doddie Weir. Picture: PA.

Burrow’s illness has transcended club loyalties. It shocked the entire sport and support – financial and otherwise – has flooded in from fans of clubs across the game and worldwide.

The documentary is not an easy watch and nothing is done to gloss over the horrible nature of Burrow’s illness, but if anything positive has come from an appalling situation, it is the raised awareness of what is a largely unknown condition.

The facts, as outlined by Lindsey, are stark. MND is a terminal illness, there is no treatment – other than palliative care – and no cure.

“He is not going to be able to talk or walk, he will have his independence taken away from him,” Lindsey says of what lies ahead.

Burrow’s has lost weight and his speech and movement have already deteriorated, less than a year after he was diagnosed, but his spirit is unscarred.

“I’m good,” he says.

“My mind is strong and positive.”

In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Burrow – an eight-time Grand Final winner and twice man of the match at Old Trafford – insists he will not let the illness break him.

“I have too many reasons to live,” Burrow says. “I am not giving in, ‘till my last breath.”

Why is it important Burrow’s story is told?

MND is a degenerative condition affecting nerves in the brain and spinal cord, leading to muscles weakening, stiffening and wasting.

The chances of any individual developing MND over a lifetime are one in 300 and the illness affects up to 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time.

Yet awareness is limited.

Burrow is better off than most, having a high profile – which has prompted a huge fundraising effort to ensure Lindsey and children Macy, Maya and Jackson are well provided for – and a large support network.

But, as Sinfield says: “What about the postman, the bricklayer or the bloke who works in a factory?”

Burrow’s profile has enabled him and those around him to “raise awareness, raise much-needed funds and get support for people who don’t have that network.”

The programme does not avoid the fact sport appears to be harder hit by MND than many other occupations.

Though she puts his condition down to “bad luck”, Burrow’s mother Irene admits: “I couldn’t watch rugby.

“I have always loved rugby, but I blamed it.

“Is it all the knocks he has had?”

The roll call of high profile athletes to have died from the illness is disturbing and another reason why this story needs to be told.

South African rugby union legend Joost van der Westhuizen (45) and Rangers football hero Fernando Ricksen (43) both died of MND and Burrow has become close to fellow sufferers former Scotland union star Doddie Weir and Stephen Darby who played for Bradford City in the 2013 League Cup final.

Nugent’s voiceover describes MND as “An opponent they cannot outrun.”

But Burrow’s story is not about a former sports hero.

It is that of a family man who is clearly adored by everyone around him.

Film of Burrow on holiday with his loved ones and celebrating his birthday at home are deeply moving and truly hammer home what an awful, cruel and unfair condition MND is and why a cure must be found before more lives are wrecked.

Rob Burrow: My Year with MND will be broadcast on BBC 2 at 7pm tomorrow.


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Laura Collins