Barrie McDermott’s emotional tribute to Rob Burrow as Leeds Rhinos icons prepare to celebrate Burrow’s life

Ross Heppenstall
Barrie McDermott Rob Burrow

Barrie McDermott says he will “talk about Rob Burrow forever” as Headingley prepares to honour the memory of the Leeds Rhinos legend.

Burrow died on June 2 aged 41 after a four-and-a-half-year battle with Motor Neurone Disease and deeply emotional tributes will be paid during the Super League visit of Leigh Leopards on Friday night.

Headingley’s only sell-out since the stadium was rebuilt was for the game against Bradford Bulls in January 2020, which doubled up as a benefit match for Burrow and Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s testimonial.

Burrow made a late cameo appearance off the bench and the stage is set for another near-20,000 sell-out with numerous club legends such as Danny Buderus and Kylie Leuluai attending.

Sky Sports pundit McDermott played with Burrow in the team who won Leeds’ first championship in 32 years when defeating Bradford Bulls in the 2004 Super League Grand Final.

The former prop was a key figure in a group of close friends and ex-team-mates who supported Burrow closely following his diagnosis, frequently visiting him at his family home in Pontefract.

“It has been a very sad time since Rob’s passing because he’s got such a beautiful young family,” McDermott told Love Rugby League.

“You saw this small, unbreakable piece of granite just deteriorate to the point where he was just skin and bones. The first couple of days after we lost Rob, everyone was upset – all his old team-mates and everyone who was on that journey with him first-hand.

“We’ve all been there for each other and consoled one another, so at first you’re sad but then you become more reflective and start to realise the impact he made on a nationwide and global scale.

“The way that Rob handled himself, the way his family have been a shining beacon for everybody, has been a true testament to him as a person.

“God forbid, if ever I was in that kind of situation, I would want to handle it like Rob did because he showed us how to stand up to things like that.

“He handled it with dignity, he opened himself up to the world, and he showed us what it was like to be selfless. Not at any point did he feel sorry for himself or blame anybody else.”

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Visits to the family home to see Burrow often involved dark humour and the kind of micky-taking which so characterised the Rhinos’ dressing room during his playing days.

McDermott revealed: “We would go and see Rob, sit down, have a laugh and talk nonsense for a couple of hours but his first thoughts for us were ‘how were we?’

“I would text Rob and see him on a regular basis – I wouldn’t like to leave it any longer than four to six weeks to physically see him.

“But I’d check in with him every couple of days and the first thing Rob would do was to ask about my family. One of the first people to congratulate me on being a grandad was Rob.

“You think about the sadness of his situation and he’s there dropping me a text and say ‘well done’ with his typical humour.

“He said ‘thank God she looks like Jenny’s side of the family and is not going to grow up with a big nose like you have!’. That dark humour was the way that we got through it.

“When I turned up at his house, his speaking box, his eye glaze, within 30 seconds of walking in, I would hear his mechanical voice saying ‘hey up big nose, how are you doing?’

“But it wasn’t just me who loved him, it was everybody and Rob commanded that because of who he was.

“If, when he got diagnosed four and a half years ago, he said ‘right lads, thanks for your friendship but I just want to spend all my time on my own with my family’ then we would have respected that.

“But you came across Rob’s words on television, social media and in the newspaper every couple of days, which prompted you to think ‘I must get in touch with him’.

“I’d have our team-mates contact me and say ‘Barrie, how’s Rob? I’ve not seen him’ and I’d say ‘come and see him with me next time’.

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“And they would because it was a strength in numbers thing and they would say afterwards ‘I’m really glad I went to see Rob’.

“The Rob that we knew was a rascal and terrorised people like me, Kylie Leuluai and Keith Senior – all the bigger blokes. Rob chose his targets carefully because he knew that we wouldn’t hit him back!

“But what he gave us during these last four and a half years was just immense and I’ll take that with me and talk about him forever. This was a guy who was staring death in the face on a weekly basis but only ever wanted to care for people.

“There’s a phrase ‘the world will be a better place when old men plant seeds, the likes of which they will never see those trees and flowers grow’.

“That’s what Rob did – he planted seeds. He would never get the benefit of the Rob Burrow Centre for MND but he knew that people afflicted by this terrible disease could have a better journey that he did.

“I feel humbled to have seen and listened to some of those moments and he’s definitely changed me in many, many ways.

“When Kev Sinfield and I talk about things, as we have over the past couple of weeks, it’s only with a smile and an immense gratitude.

“Rob and Kev have changed people’s lives and to see how they have inspired people is just overwhelming. I’d like to see Headingley absolutely full to the rafters on Friday night.

“I hope people can say ‘I want to be part of this celebration of Rob’s life’ and show his family just how much he meant to them.”

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