“If you ask anyone from around Pontefract and Castleford area who grew up watching Castleford or Leeds, the main aspiration was to be someone like Rob Burrow.”
Leeds Rhinos Callum McLelland following in Rob Burrow’s footsteps
Leeds Rhinos starlet Callum McLelland was five years old when his idol Burrow appeared in his first Super League grand final back in 2004. Fast forward to 16 years later, the 21-year-old is looking to follow in the former half-back’s footsteps and pave his way through the Rhinos ranks.
With both figures being in the sport of Rugby League and hailing from Pontefract, it was inevitable that their paths would eventually cross. In 2018, McLelland made the switch from Union with Edinburgh and Scotland to Headingley on a three and a half-year deal. The Scotland international began training with the under 19’s as well as the senior squad and would be coached by Rhino’s Legend Burrow.
“There was an aura around him, as soon as he’d walk into a room you’d know he was there and everyone had the most respect for him out of most players,” said McLelland.
“He loved coaching just as he loved playing. He loved working with the young lads as he has been in that position before and for me it was great to learn off him.
“Playing in the same position, it was absolutely massive for me picking up little bits off him as well as for the other young lads coming through.”
“Rob is just an example of how nothing can stop you and I think that’s something all of his teammates recognise as well. Growing up and playing, Rob was probably one of my biggest idols.”
More than just a great player
Burrow was tragically diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2019 but has captured the rugby community’s imagination with his fundraising efforts and inspirational attitude.
🦸"Hero of Headingley!"
— Sky Sports Rugby League (@SkySportsRL) January 12, 2021
“It doesn’t surprise me because the rugby league community is quite small on the scale of how popular sports are in England and Europe,” explained McLelland.
“The one thing that is great about it is when it faces adversity, everyone gets behind each other no matter who you support or who your rivals are. I think that is what makes our sport so special.
“It is something special and I think it has hit home with everyone just seeing how you can go from the highs of winning a grand final to being told you’ve got a disease like that in the space of a couple of years.”
“It’s mindboggling so when you’ve got a supporting cast like he has behind him and how determined Rob is as a person, he’s not going to go far wrong.”
An occasion to remember
The Kickstarter of Burrow’s journey and fundraising efforts in his fight against MND came with the testimonial game of his former Rhinos teammate Jamie Jones-Buchanan. The loose forward had made the game against Bradford Bulls a joint fundraiser to support his former teammate’s cause.
Rhinos head coach Richard Agar had named a team that had a blend of experience and youthful exuberance. McLelland was named among the 21-man squad for what would be one of the most iconic days in the history of the club.
“I can still remember being sat in Richard’s office when he told me I was playing when Luke Gale had pulled out injured and I was starting.
“The occasion was absolutely huge with the biggest crowd Headingley has seen in years. The meaning behind the game and how everyone came together and especially Bradford and the way they played. It made the occasion really special for both Jonesy and especially Rob.
The young rhino played alongside some legends of the sport and members of the clubs golden generation such as Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Danny McGuire as well as Burrow himself.
“When you’re a kid watching them, you think I’d love to be there someday, so it was surreal. I’ve used that word many times when describing it.
“It’s hard to explain with how emotional it was and how quickly it went by but looking back it’s one of the best moments of my career so far.”
A big year ahead for Leeds Rhinos Callum McLelland
The 21-year-old appeared on numerous occasions at the end of the prolonged 2019/20 Super League season and will hope to push on for a permanent spot among Agar’s squad. A personal boost for McLelland is the addition to the coaching staff of former St Helens, England and Great Britain scrum half Sean Long. Much like McLelland, Long also has experience in Union after joining Rhinos after being assistant coach with Premiership side Harlequins.
“In my opinion, he is one of the best English half-backs to ever do it.
“You talk about him being up there with the best of the super league era and just to be learning from a player and coach like him and the calibre of players I’ve learnt from, including Rob and Kev, it adds more strings to my bow and hopefully next year I can kick on and be a big part of that.”
McLelland appears to have a wise head upon young shoulders, working hard and ready to take each step of his career as it comes. Despite the array of legends that he has been coached by, the young half-back is not looking to emulate any of those greats, boldly saying:
“To be honest, I haven’t got a specific idol I look up to and say I want to be like them because at the end of the day it is my own career.
“I want to make my own way and make my own path and not have anything else to judge from.”
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images