Monday, October 3, 2022

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Leeds Rhinos legend Rob Burrow urges the team to savor every moment ahead of the Super League Grand Final

Rob Burrow has a poignant message for the Leeds Rhinos players heading into Saturday’s Grand Final at Old Trafford.

“None of us knows what turns our lives will take,” says the eight-time Super League champion. “So make sure you enjoy the special moments as they stand in front of you.”

Burrow knows more than anyone the importance of enjoying every second.

The 5ft 5in former scrum half was in the last Leeds team to win a Grand Final in 2017. That victory over Castleford was also his last game before retiring, and it’s considered one of the proudest moments of his career, lifting the trophy alongside outgoing captain Danny McGuire.

But just two years later, after joining Rhinos Academy as a coach, Burrow was tragically diagnosed with motor neuron disease. He is now in a wheelchair and can no longer speak. For communication, also for this interview, he uses a technology called eyegaze, in which he controls a keyboard with his eye movements.

One thing that hasn’t changed during Burrow’s battle with the terminal illness is his passion for his former club. Immediately after the Rhinos won the play-off semifinals in Wigan last week, he tweeted that he was “absolutely blown away by the boys”.

Now two days from his 40th birthday, Burrow is hoping Leeds can give him an early birthday present by beating St Helens at Old Trafford. It’s something he knows a thing or two about. Of the Rhinos’ eight Grand Final wins – and Burrow was involved in all of them – four have come against the Saints, in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

“The rivalry with Saints was quite intense but it always brought out the best of both teams when we met,” Burrow recalled to Sportsmail. “I’ve just been extremely fortunate to be part of this Golden Generation at Leeds and proud to be part of a special group of players who have made our childhood dreams come true together. Those memories with my buddies are what I cherish the most.”

Rhinos fans also appreciate Burrow’s individual brilliance, not least his attempt in the 2011 final, widely regarded as the greatest of all time in a Grand Final. Received the ball on the center line, he ducked and dodged past five Saints players before diving under the posts. Burrow is still the only player to win the Harry Sunderland Trophy as Man of the Match with the unanimous vote of all 37 jurors.

“It’s hard to forget that moment, especially at this time of year with so much gaming going on… not that I’m complaining!” Burrow laughs. “The attempt itself was just a bit of instinct. Even as a kid I could play impromptu, usually trying not to get yelled at by a bigger player!

“I just spotted two tall men and ducked between them. I then went on autopilot and managed to get around Paul Wellens and then get on the line just ahead of the chasing defender.

Burrow’s magic moment helped Leeds become the first team to win the Grand Final trophy after finishing fifth in the table, a feat they repeated the following season. Now the Class of 2022 are just 80 minutes away from being fifth-placed champions after also beating the Catalans and Wigan in the play-offs as they did in 2012.

“It’s uncanny how similar it is,” Burrow admits. “Back then we had to leave home for the playoffs too, so everyone wrote us off.

“The difference back then was that we believed we could do it after winning several Grand Finals before. But this current group is making its own history and clearly has a lot of faith as well.

“We used to say, ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,’ and they’re following that old mantra now.

“They have worked incredibly well over the past few months to shoot their season. I’m particularly happy for the young players as I worked with many of them when they first came to the club.”

Leeds’ revival followed the appointment of Rohan Smith as boss in April, at a time when they were just a point away from bottom of the table. The Australian is the nephew of Tony Smith, who led Burrow’s Rhinos to fame as a trainer in 2005 and 2007.

“Rohan did a great job,” says Burrow. “His uncle was a wonderful coach and I enjoyed every minute I played under him. From the outside, Rohan, like his uncle, seems to have gotten that trust from the players. They believe in what he’s asking them to do and it shows on the field.”

Leeds have won 13 of their 18 Super League games under Smith, including nine of the last 10. However, Kristian Woolf’s Saints led the table in the regular season and are aiming to become the first team to win four consecutive Grand Finals and it creates a record of 10 titles in total.

“St. Helens have been the dominant team for the past three years and have deservedly been champions during that time,” adds Burrow. “But if Leeds can take the title back then they certainly deserve it.

“Grand Finals are great opportunities, especially when the army of Leeds fans go to Old Trafford and make a noise. Even though I won’t be at Old Trafford, I will certainly be there in spirit and watching it on TV. I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world.”

Rob’s friend and former captain Kevin Sinfield will unveil his latest challenge Monday to raise awareness and funds for the MND community, which coincides with Rob’s 40th birthday.

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