Page last updated at 17:10 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Heart defect killed rugby player

Leon Walker
Leon Walker had represented Yorkshire and England

A fit and apparently healthy rugby league player who collapsed and died during a match had a rare undiagnosed heart defect, an inquest has heard.

Leon Walker, 20, from Morley, Leeds, could have died at any time according to the examining pathologist.

The Wakefield Wildcats forward was tackled towards the end of a game with the Celtic Crusaders just before he collapsed in Maesteg, near Bridgend.

The coroner, sitting at Aberdare, ruled that he died from natural causes.

A match doctor and other medics tried to resuscitate him and used a defibrillator to shock his heart, but it did not work.

He was airlifted to hospital in Swansea but could not be revived.

A post-mortem examination revealed abnormalities to the coronary arteries.

Consultant surgeon Richard Johnson, who tried to revive him, told the inquest the player suddenly collapsed on the pitch.

He was a fit and active young man and that makes it more difficult to come to terms with
Peter Maddox, coroner

Two opposing players were involved in the tackle - one person goes in high, one goes in low," he said.

"To start with his breathing was laboured and he had a pulse but then it dropped.

"We gave CPR, oxygen and used a defibrillator to try to shock his heart into beating. But it did not work."

Pathologist Richard Jones said Mr Walker had an abnormality which would have been present from birth, symptomless, and not detected in routine medicals.

"He had a flap of tissue which blocked the opening of his heart during rigorous exercise.

"The right coronary artery followed a strange and precarious course through big blood vessels.

"When it expanded and contracted during exercise the artery would become squashed reducing the amount of oxygenated blood to the heart.

"In Leon's case this would have caused an abnormal rhythm and this led to his heart attack."

He added: "Death could have occurred at any time but the risk was increased during exertion or exercise."

'No rhyme nor reason'

As part of their investigation, police watched a DVD of the match between the reserve teams, which showed the tackle in the 63rd minute of the match, but decided there were no suspicious circumstances.

The player had signed for Wakefield in November 2008 and had spent three years previously at Salford City Reds. He had represented Yorkshire and England in 2007.

Coroner Peter Maddox said: "This is an absolute tragedy for Leon's family and friends in the sport that he left behind.

"But they may take comfort because he died playing the game he loved - rugby league.

"He was a fit and active young man and that makes it more difficult to come to terms with.

"There was no rhyme nor reason as to why it happened on that particular day."

In a statement, Mr Walker's family said they wanted to thank South Wales Police, Celtic Crusaders and Maesteg Rugby Club for their support following the loss of their son.

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