Rob Burrow has long since lost his voice due to the devastating effects of motor neurone disease, but the bonds he forged in an all-conquering Leeds Rhinos team live on.
He regularly swaps messages with Kevin Sinfield, his former team-mate and captain who has raised over a staggering £8 million for MND charities since Burrow’s diagnosis in December 2019.
“Rob’s smart and has never lost that – he knows exactly what’s going on,” says Sinfield, who recently completed the inaugural Rob Burrow Leeds Marathon, pushing his great friend round the 26.2 miles in a specially adapted wheelchair.
“He’s sharp and I think people have started to understand that. With MND, your muscles stop working but the brain functions normally."
“If you read our text messages you wouldn’t know what he’s going through. I still get the best of Rob Burrow, albeit in a different way.”
Burrow’s tragic plight shook the rugby league world, where he is revered after winning eight Grand Finals with Leeds as a brilliant, diminutive half-back.
Yet Sinfield has never been far from his side.
Indeed, the ‘band of brothers’ who played together at Headingley have been a huge support network, regularly visiting Burrow at his family home in Pontefract, West Yorkshire.
Sinfield, who left Leicester Tigers to become England rugby union’s defence coach last December, adds: “We all try and do our bit.
“Within that team we had at Leeds Rhinos, there are some really close friendships and that doesn’t end just because you finish playing."
“We know at any moment if the ‘Batman’ sign goes up and someone is in a bit of strife then we’ll be there for them. That's what good team-mates do, isn’t it?"
“They look after each other and we all try and support Rob as much as we can. He’s obviously got a busy social calendar and, with his holidays, he’s like Judith Chalmers!"
“We’ve also got our own jobs and families, but I try and get over every couple of weeks. I love seeing Rob and spending time with him."
“Every time I’m with him he makes me laugh, he shows me what fight is and he inspires me. Being with Rob reminds me of what’s truly important in life. I’m very grateful for that.”
When Burrow was diagnosed, Sinfield shed a tear and made a vow.
To support his much-loved friend every step of the way as the incurable disease cruelly took hold.
But it goes deeper. Sinfield completed epic running challenges in 2020 and 2021 which raised over £5 million before running seven ultra-marathons in seven days last November.
'To throw my passion into something else has been incredible'
That prompted further calls for a knighthood for a man affectionately known in league circles as ‘Sir Kev’.
“After the first challenge I did, I realised how important helping people was to me,” reflects Sinfield.
“I knew that as a player and a captain, but to be able to throw all my passion into something else has been incredible."
“It’s in terrible circumstances, but we’re trying to get some good out of it. I realised there are some bits of my life which have changed massively, but I would also say that I’ve not changed a bit."
“I know I can try and use some of that platform to make people’s lives better. If that means I’m a bit uncomfortable at times, so be it."
“I understand I’ve got a really important job with England, especially in a World Cup year. But the great thing about the running is that it helps me to be a better coach."
“When players see you helping others, it resonates with them too.”
Sinfield’s new autobiography ‘The Extra Mile’, written by former Telegraph chief sports writer Paul Hayward, has just been released.
It details his journey from growing up in Oldham to captaining Leeds, moving to Leicester Tigers and helping them to last season’s Premiership title before joining England with Steve Borthwick.
And, of course, his relentless and unflinching support of Burrow.
Sinfield is a dedicated family man and elder son Jack, 18, is in Leeds Rhinos’ first-team squad while 15-year-old Sam plays football.
“I love watching both my boys play and get a lot of joy from it,” says Sinfield
“I’m there as often as I can be and my wife Jayne and I are like any parents."
“We want the best for our kids and that means them being happy and healthy.”
The 42-year-old has done so much to raise the profile of a disease where those diagnosed are given a life expectancy of two to three years but for which research into remains under-funded.
'People suffering with MND don’t have time'
He will continue to press the government over the £50 million investment into MND research they promised in November 2021.
“I’m told that £27 million has been released,” says Sinfield.
“The applications have gone in and some of the research grants have been approved."
“That’s been a massive step forward and there’s obviously another £23 million up for grabs."
“It’s about providing those smart minds, the specialists, across the country with as much money as possible to try and find a cure as quickly as they can."
“How much money can be pumped in? That’s what will speed it up. People suffering with MND don’t have time, so we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Quite what his next fundraising exploit will be remains to be seen.
But iconic images of Sinfield lifting Burrow, 40, out of his wheelchair and carrying him over the finish line at the recent marathon in Leeds served as a beautiful portrayal of a special friendship.
"It was a special moment and better than any trophy lift,” adds Sinfield, who captained Leeds to seven Grand Final wins, with Burrow a team-mate in every one of them.
The Extra Mile by Kevin Sinfield is out now. Hear Sinfield in conversation with Clare Balding on Tuesday, May 30, 7.30pm at London’s Conway Hall.