Challenge Cup finals, Test matches and even rugby union internationals have been played at one of the world’s most famous sporting venues so a pre-season warm-up match would not be expected to feature among Headingley’s more memorable occasions.
However, a tragic illness and one-off reunion made Leeds Rhinos’ 34-10 derby win over Bradford Bulls an emotional “I was there” moment.
In fact, 19,560 were present, the ground’s biggest gate for four years, to pay tribute to two of the Leeds club’s finest servants and also wallow in some nostalgia at the end of an unprecedented era.
The fixture was originally organised as a testimonial for Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who became one of only three players to play 20 years with Leeds before hanging up his boots at the end of last season. But last month the rugby league world was rocked by an announcement from another Leeds great, eight-time Grand Final winner Rob Burrow who revealed he has been diagnosed with the terminal illness motor neurone disease. The game, therefore, became also a fund-raiser for Burrow and his family.
For whatever reason, Leeds have never been among rugby league’s most popular clubs and, in truth, they would probably struggle to squeeze into the top-30.
But the esteem in which Burrow is held cuts across club loyalties, as evidenced by the incredible response to an online appeal launched by the club.
As of yesterday evening, direct donations had reached £253,748.14, with gift aid contributions taking the tally above £300,000.
Naturally, there was been a outpouring of good will from Leeds, Burrow’s adopted home city, but that has been echoed sport-wide.
Kallum Watkins’s testimonial game against Castleford Tigers a year ago was played in front of just over 6,000, but the rush of support for Burrow meant the ‘house full’ notices were posted before the end of last week.
Bulls, despite their own recent financial issues, agreed to donate all their receipts to Burrow and their playing squad paid for tickets and Sky television covered the match live with their staff working for free. It is difficult to imagine a similar response for any other player than Burrow, whose lack of size, blistering pace, fearless running and eye for a gap endeared him to a generation of rugby fans and yielded eight Grand Final wins, three World Club Challenge and league leaders’ successes and two Challenge Cups.
Burrow was a key member of Rhinos’ golden generation which ended last year when Jones-Buchanan finally called it a day.
In tribute to Burrow and Jones-Buchanan, seven members of Leeds’s finest-ever side – Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leuluai, Keith Senior, Brett Delaney and Ryan Bailey – strapped themselves up to make a cameo appearance in the final 10 minutes.
Jones-Buchanan also played, but the loudest applause was reserved for Burrow who entered the field five minutes from time to a standing ovation.
The afternoon’s most moving moment came after the final hooter when Burrow broke down during a thank you speech to the crowd.
From the Western Terrace, where the Bulls fans stood, came a chant of ‘one Robbie Burrow’.
That was initially applauded by the Leeds faithful, who then joined in from the remaining three quarters of the stadium.
There was barely a dry eye in the house.
Bulls also brought on some of their club’s former Odsal heroes, Robbie Hunter Paul, Stuart Fielden, Nathan McAvoy, Rob Parker, Matty Blythe, Wayne Godwin and Jamie Fielden.
Leuluai, a fearsome former prop and the most successful overseas player in Leeds’s history, was Burrow’s designated minder and tore into Bulls like the years since his last competitive game – Rhinos’ treble-clinching Grand Final win over Wigan in 2015 – had never happened.
Rhinos coach Richard Agar joked afterwards that he is considering offering Leulaui a contract for the coming Super League season.
There was no scoring during the old boys’ reunion, though Senior – in his first game for nine years – lifted the crowd with one thrilling touchline burst and McGuire suggested he could play on if he wanted to.
For the record, Rhys Martin scored a brace of tries and five conversions for Rhinos and Liam Sutcliffe, Brad Dwyer, Callum McLelland and Richie Myler also crossed.
Bulls’ try scorers were Ross Oakes and Thomas Doyle, whose touchdown was improved by Jordan Lilley, but it was one of those occasions when the result mattered least.