Tragedy sees spirit of Trinity summoned once again

The loss of Leon Walker will again test the resolve of Wakefield rugby league club, for whom sorrow has become too familiar, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

The few months that Wakefield have endured, culminating in the death of their young player, Leon Walker, on a pitch in South Wales on Sunday, raises the question: how much more can one club take?

If Leeds were football's Damned United, then nearby Wakefield's rugby relationship with the Holy Trinity – which predates their other identity as the Wildcats by a century – has done nothing to keep trouble and tragedy from the club's door.

The 20-year-old Walker was their second player to die suddenly within six months, following the collapse of the first-team prop, Adam Watene, after a gym session. Another player, Jamie Rooney, has had two bouts of potentially life-threatening heart trouble. Yet another, Richard Moore, has been desperately ill with Crohn's disease. The club has also lost two of its most famous ex-players, David Topliss and Don Fox.

It all puts into perspective Wakefield's usual raft of worries over recent years: their battles against relegation; the financial problems which almost closed them down; and the continuing uncertainty over whether they will be able to get the new ground upon which their membership of Super League depends.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect is that they have carried on winning rugby league matches. Had they played on Sunday and won, they could now have been top of Super League. As their coach, John Kear, has observed, they have become perversely good at dealing with adversity.

All that was pushed into the background yesterday as the club mourned the loss of a promising young forward, who had already represented his county and his country at Academy level while playing for Salford, before moving back to Yorkshire, to combine playing with his other job as a steel erector.

The Rugby League has launched the inevitable inquiry, but it appears that Walker broke his neck in a tackle in the reserve game against the Celtic Crusaders at Maesteg. He was pronounced dead after being air-lifted to Morriston Hospital, to which his parents travelled yesterday. His death is a reminder that he played in a dangerous, sometimes brutal game.

The Leeds half-back, Chris Sanderson, was the last first-team professional to die on the pitch in this country in 1977, while an Auckland Warriors player, Falani Latoa, died during a trial match in 1995. Watene was the first current Super League player to pass away. What Wakefield's faithful are entitled to ask is: Why us again?

"It gives you that feeling of 'What can happen next?'" says Kear. "It's another massive test for us, but this time it affects a different group of players. Leon was a part-time professional who was being given an opportunity to play with a very young group of players. We have to ensure now that they are looked after."

The Rugby League is offering counselling to all the players involved in the game. All the club's players were given the day off yesterday, while the coaching staff met to assess where they go from here. Kear's feeling is that, after consulting Walker's parents, first-team business has to go ahead as scheduled, starting with Friday night's home match against St Helens. "We've got fixtures we've got to fulfil, but it's going to be hard. With Don and even Toppo, they'd had an innings, but then Adam ... and Leon was a young man just starting out."

The former MP for Wakefield, David Hinchliffe, was in Bridgend for the match when news of the tragedy came through. "After everything else that's happened, it's so hard to get a grip," he said. "I woke up and thought I must have dreamt it."

There will be a minute's silence at Belle Vue on Friday and at all games this weekend. Wakefield are being given the option over whether their game should be televised as planned, but the reserves' match will not be played. "The players have coped with everything that's been thrown at them," said Hinchliffe. "There's something special about the spirit at this club."

Wakefield's community manager, James Elston, puts it another way. "We could wallow in self-pity and say 'Why us?'" he says. "Or we can get on with playing rugby league."