They last played together five years ago but Kevin Sinfield has never left Rob Burrow’s side.
‘There is an unbreakable bond,’ explains the Leeds Rhinos legend, whose final match with Burrow saw them win the 2015 Super League Grand Final and complete a domestic treble.
‘I was Rob’s captain for 13 years. Throughout all of that you are responsible for looking after your team-mates. Just because we have finished playing, that hasn’t really changed.’
They last played together five years ago but Kevin Sinfield (above) never left Rob Burrow’s side
Indeed, it was Sinfield who was there to tell Burrow to see a doctor after he noticed him slurring his speech at the Rhinos’ end-of-season awards night in September 2019.
And it was Sinfield who was there to hug Burrow when he broke down in tears during a TV interview to announce he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease last December.
‘That was probably the toughest moment,’ Sinfield, now Rhinos director of rugby, tells Sportsmail. ‘To see him get upset talking about his family in that interview really got to me. That was when you realised how real it was.’
Now, almost a year after finding out about Burrow’s terminal condition, Sinfield is still going the extra mile for his friend. Or an extra 183.4 miles to be precise.
From December 1, he will run seven marathons in seven days to try and raise £77,777 for ex-Rhinos No7 Burrow and the MND Association.
‘It will be the toughest thing I’ve ever done,’ says the 40-year-old. ‘It will be a huge mental challenge for me but I am looking forward to the battle.’
Sinfield has described his relationship with Burrow (above) as an ‘unbreakable bond’
Their final match together for the Rhinos saw them win the 2015 Super League Grand Final
Sinfield will get through his runs – which will take place in Leeds and near his home in Oldham – by reflecting on his best moments with his old team-mate.
He first met Burrow at a Rhinos club session when he was 14 and together they went on to win seven Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenges.
‘I am going to spend that much time out on the road, I want to try and think of the good times I had with Rob,’ admits Sinfield. ‘I want to enjoy it so I will try and remember how funny he is, some of the jokes and daft pranks he played on people, rather than it all being quite dark and sad.
‘When I first met him, he was the smallest but fastest thing you had ever seen. The minute he started in our academy I knew he was going to be a top player. He is just a top bloke. Always has been.’
Sinfield chokes up as he says that last line. Burrow’s struggle has touched the nation but it has hit his former skipper especially hard.
It was Sinfield who encouraged Burrow to visit a doctor as he began to slur his speech
‘It makes you question all parts of your life,’ says Sinfield. ‘What I am doing this for? What is really important? Why am I spending all this time on whatever it is when it doesn’t matter?
‘To see a 37-year-old guy get diagnosed like he did, to show the fight he has shown throughout this year, and to see where he is at now, it is very, very tough.’
Burrow’s health has deteriorated to such an extent that he has lost his ability to walk and talk, and now uses a wheelchair and communicates via an app on his phone after ‘banking’ his voice.
‘His communication has changed but he is still laughing and joking and full of energy and enthusiasm,’ says Sinfield. ‘He is a great character to be around. We want to make sure he and his family have the best Christmas possible.’
As part of the fundraising campaign, a horse – Burrow Seven – has been named after the former Leeds scrum half, with all winnings going to the MND charity. ‘We used to joke a fair bit that he should have been a jockey so he will finally get chance,’ laughs Sinfield.
A recent BBC documentary on Burrow’s plight also helped raise awareness of MND – an incurable disease which affects the brain and nerves – and was watched by more than three million people.
On the programme, Burrow’s parents wondered whether his career had caused his condition. His mum Irene said: ‘I have always loved rugby but I blamed it – is it all the knocks he’s had?’
Sinfield was there to hug Burrow after his motor neurone disease diagnosis last December
Sinfield (right) is running seven marathons in seven days to raise money for Burrow and MND
A similar question is being asked in football following the dementia diagnosis of Sir Bobby Charlton and death of fellow sufferer and England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles. Research shows that ex-footballers are five times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease and four times more likely to get MND.
So what about a physical sport like rugby league? ‘One thing for certain is that there needs to be a lot more investment and research into it,’ says Sinfield. ‘That is the case for all sports where there is a chance of head collision.
‘There are so many good things that sport gives us – friendship, fitness, confidence – and to make decisions based on opinions is dangerous. That’s why research is so important, so we can understand more about this disease and why it is causing the carnage that it is.
‘We want to keep Rob’s name at the forefront of everyone’s mind because that research doesn’t just happen, it needs somebody to pay for it.’
Certainly, Burrow will be in the thoughts of fans when the Rhinos take on Catalans Dragons in Friday night’s Super League eliminator play-off.
The impact of sport on health was questioned after Sir Bobby Charlton’s dementia diagnosis
Leeds already have one trophy in the bag this season – the Challenge Cup in which Burrow was chief guest in absentia – and are now three wins away from what would be a particularly poignant double.
‘At the Challenge Cup final, Rob had a place in our dressing room at Wembley – he had his shirt hung up and his photograph up,’ adds Sinfield.
‘For those who played with Rob that are still in the side, it is something they think about and it means something. Considering the journey we have been on, it would be remarkable to be in the Grand Final in a couple of weeks.’
*Donate to Sinfield’s 7 in 7 challenge fund at justgiving.com/crowdfunding/sinfield-7-in-7*