When Ian finally stepped onto the training field, Owen, only a few yards ahead, turned back to jokingly give him stick for being late. Before the words left his mouth, he saw his friend on one knee; then, a second later, collapsed onto the turf. He rushed to his side, but little did Owen know there was nothing he could do. Ian was gone.
On Tuesday 20th February 2018, about 9.30am, fellow Doncaster Knights props Ian Williams and Owen Evans were last out of the changing rooms. It was a forwards training session that morning, and they were heading for the back paddock, just beyond the main pitch. Ian had only made it a few metres onto the training field when Owen turned around. “Both me and him were last, and I’d turned back to jokingly say ‘fucking hurry up, Ian’ or something, because I was late as well. But as I looked at him to say something, he was on one knee, staring at nothing – something wasn’t right. He then dropped on one hand and face-planted on the floor. I thought, ‘shit, he’s passed out’ and ran straight to him.”
There within seconds, he put Ian into the recovery position. At first, says Owen, the sight of the two props entangled on the floor as he moved his team-mate could have been mistaken for them wrestling, as props are wont to do, but it would only have been for a split second.
“Owen shouted ‘lads, lads, Ian’s collapsed’, and within seconds there were 15 or 16 of us there,” explains Michael Hills, the Doncaster captain and flanker. “Ben Hunter was one of the first and took control of the situation, sending some boys off to get the defib, and me, Owen and Kendo [Glen Kenworthy, forwards coach] were around Ian with the other lads staying back, because you don’t want 16 boys crowding around. It’s the same on the rugby pitch – if someone gets injured you don’t crowd them because it’s too intense for the person.”
“His breathing wasn’t right,” repeats Owen, “so we started on the CPR.”
“Ben was telling everyone what to do,” explains Kendo. “The defib came out, we hooked that up and then started rotating on the CPR. I’d never done anything like that before, and it’s really tiring.”
“It was surreal,” adds Ben. “I used to work in a gym and we all had to be emergency response trained because the gym was the only place in the building with a defib, so we were forever training with it.
“I knew if we could get the defib on within two minutes we had a chance, and the guys got it so quickly…” continues Ben. “It felt like he was breathing on his own for a minute, but then he went again. His eyes changed colour too. We didn’t know what that meant, but we reacted as best we could.”
While Ben and his team worked on Ian, the other Doncaster Knights had spread themselves across the training complex, creating a line from the front entrance to the training pitch at the far side, to ensure the emergency services found Ian as quickly as possible.
The Doncaster medical team, Lindsay and Jess, had rushed out as soon as the players had run in for the defib machine, and fitted the nasal oxygen while Ben’s calmness under pressure meant they were able to give medical feedback to the emergency services. Something wasn’t right though. “When the defib didn’t work, I was like ‘oh fuck’, but we kept working on the CPR,” admits Kendo.
“I remember hearing Ben’s voice ensuring that nobody was fatiguing doing CPR and the defib machine saying no shock was advised. That’s the bit that gets you the most,” says Lindsay. “Because if they can shock you, they can do something.”
A defibrilator machine’s automatic, so it starts advising the user what to do as soon as it’s connected. “Ian’s rhythm was never a shockable rhythm,” continues Lindsay. “So the only thing we could do was keep going with the chest compressions until the paramedics arrived.”
The first responder arrived in less than ten minutes, followed shortly by an ambulance and then the air ambulance. “It felt like an age for the ambulance to arrive,” admits Kendo, “but it wasn’t.”
Ian was moved into the ambulance where the emergency services continued working on him. “I thought they were going to come, get him in the ambulance and then go,” admits Michael. “But they stayed on the field, and then the air ambulance came, the doctor went into the ambulance and he stayed for a long time. I think that’s when people thought … ‘he’s in trouble here’,” finishes Kendo. “In my head, I was like, ‘get him in the helicopter, get him to Sheffield, because that’s where the specialists are’.”
With the ambulance doors open, the emergency staff could be seen doing all they could to help Ian. Eventually, the doors were closed and Ian was taken to hospital. Owen went with him. “I thought to myself, if I was him, I’d rather wake up next to a mate than a physio, so I went with him. At no point did I think he wasn’t going to pull through, and I rang his mum Pippa when I was in the ambulance.”
“Owen’s words were, ‘he needs to see a player, a friend, when he wakes up’,” says Ben. “He wasn’t going to let anyone else go.”
On that Tuesday, Pippa, who lives in Tenby, was with Ian’s sister Helen in London. Only the weekend before, they’d been to see Ian in Doncaster where they’d met his girlfriend, Abi, for the first time. They’d also found out that Ian had been to hospital the Thursday before. When he was 14, Ian had attended a school with strong military links and so heart screening was routine. They detected a congenital abnormality with his heart, known as bicuspid aortic valve or bicuspid valve on the aorta. Where a normal valve that regulates blood flow between the heart and the body has three parts, Ian’s had two. It wasn’t seen as a major cause for concern, just something to keep an eye on. The advice had been, if you experienced chest pain, you needed to get it checked out.
Not one to go the hospital unnecessarily, Ian had reluctantly been taken by Abi to hospital with just that. Chest pain, blurred vision, neck pain radiating into his jaw. He’d been released that same night, leaving with a promise to sort out match tickets for the paramedic and some of the staff that had seen to him – a promise he kept.
The next day, Ian called Pippa at home in Tenby to tell her about his hospital visit. “He said, ‘don’t get upset but I had to go to hospital last night’,” recalls Pippa of the conversation. “Abi had called for the ambulance, it was to do with his heart, but he was sent home. I questioned that a bit and then he said, ‘and good news, Quigs has pulled out so I’m on the bench’. Ian was still chasing his contract and Clive [Griffiths, director of rugby] had spoken to him about one in January.”
The game, against Hartpury, was not only the first time his mum and sister Helen would meet Abi, but also the first time Helen and Abi would meet his team-mates. “He got on for the last 15 minutes, and he’d missed one particular tackle that he kept going on about all weekend, but did have a very good assist. He rarely scored himself, but he’d popped the ball, and, as always, thought it looked good if someone else was running around the post rather than him.
“Helen bought The Rugby Paper the next day and I opened it looking for a report, and there was this picture of Ian staring out at me. It was very funny, he was on his backside, with his feet in air, propping himself up, looking for the try to be scored.”
That weekend, he’d also told his mum of his career plans. At 27, Ian had already achieved a lot. Uniquely playing Varsity in both Wales and England, first for Swansea, winning two from three against Cardiff; and then three times for Oxford University at Twickenham, winning all three matches against Cambridge. He’d been spotted in his early days by both Bath and Newport-Gwent Dragons, had played youth rugby for London Welsh, helped RGC 1404 into the Welsh Premiership, before making his Championship debut for Rotherham Titans. The move to Doncaster followed last September, but already Ian had been planning the next stage, as he told his mum on a walk that Sunday. “Ian had been talking of how much he loved life up north and was hoping for another year at Doncaster with the aim of going for the Newcastle Falcons,” says Pippa. “He could see himself up there, he’d found his niche with the people, talked of starting a family with Abi, getting some dogs… He looked me in the eye and said, ‘you do realise I’m not going to be coming home and playing for the Scarlets don’t you?’”
When the first call came, Pippa and Helen were on another walk, this time on Clapham Common. “The phone rang. I didn’t recognise the number, but it was Michael Hills. I said ‘yes, what can I do for you?’, and he said Ian had collapsed and asked if we could come back up. He said the paramedics were doing everything they could, and I was telling him to make sure they knew about the bicuspid valve… He said they knew and rang off. I rang Phil [Ian’s dad] to tell him that I was going back up to Doncaster.”
Soon after, Owen rang from the ambulance, reassuring her that Ian wasn’t on his own. “I told him to tell them about the bicuspid valve and that he went to hospital on Thursday, he said ‘they know’, so I said, ‘well, tell them again!’.”
Back in Doncaster, Owen had arrived at the hospital with Ian. “We got to the ER and there were shitloads of doctors all around, taking it in turns to give CPR and all sorts of treatment,” explains Owen. “They kept asking if I was okay, and I just wanted him to be okay. Then it got to a part when I overheard a doctor saying his heart was not responding after ten minutes. It was only at this point I thought this could go south. Someone came across, and they were going to do this for 15 more minutes, then call it.
“At this point I lost my cool. I didn’t get aggressive, but I was like, ‘you’re doing this to keep him alive, right?’ But before I could let them finish, I was like ‘fuck it, I’ll do it, you can’t give up’. But it was only keeping his body alive. He was gone.
“It’s stupid, but then it was like you see in a film, the machine flat-lined and before I knew it, the white sheet was put over him. Everyone was staring at me, I just thought ‘fuck’, and I went outside. They asked about the family, and I said they were coming up from London, so they’d be a good few hours. At first they said let’s wait until they get here before we tell them. So I rang the club to let everyone know, which was a tough conversation, and then I thought it was fucked up, it wasn’t right not to let the family know, they deserve to know. Darren the nurse offered to ring them, but it wasn’t right for Pippa to hear from someone she’d never met before, so I made the call.”
To everyone involved the timeline is blurry, but Pippa received the final call about an hour after the first. “Owen rang at about 11.10am, and he just said, in his very Welsh voice, ‘we’ve lost him’. I remember saying, ‘don’t be stupid, he’s 6ft 4in and 19 stone, what do you mean you’ve lost him?’. Then he said, ‘No, I mean, he’s gone, he’s dead.’ I remember then saying, ‘is this some kind of sick joke, what are you doing?’ But then there was silence, and I knew.”
She had answered the call on speakerphone, and when they pulled over, recalls Pippa, Helen looked like she fell out of the car. After finishing talking to Owen, she called her husband Phil to tell him their beloved 27-year-old son had died.
At Doncaster Knights, Lindsay had received the call. “It was lunchtime and the food was starting to be served, but nobody was touching it, nobody was eating,” remembers Michael. “Then the call came. That’s why we all heard together.”
“I told the boys just to go home,” says Kendo, “I went back to the office and everyone was just gobsmacked.”
Back at the hospital, with Pippa and Helen stuck in traffic, Owen had stayed put. “I promised Pippa I wouldn’t leave. The nurse asked me if I wanted to see him, and I’d never seen a dead body before, let alone a friend, but I forced myself because I wanted to see what he was like before his family did, in case he didn’t look right.”
He fixed his hair and then Ian’s girlfriend Abi arrived and, after giving them time alone, he joined her by the bedside. Pippa and Helen arrived at about five o’clock, Phil arrived an hour or two later. “Phil said, this was so him ‘face planted in the mud, he literally died with mud on his face and his boots’. He looked so peaceful, I kept thinking any minute he’d open an eye and say, ‘ha fooled you’. It was always his smile, that big grin made everybody melt.”
The next day, there was no training at Doncaster Knights, with the team getting together instead on the Thursday. “We wandered down to where it happened, just for a moment’s reflection,” explains Michael. “Then we all went out for a meal as a team so it kept us all together, and we talked about Ian. There were a lot of laughs, and tears too.”
Pippa and Phil made a point of meeting all the players, thanking those who had been with him, and also meeting the chair of Doncaster Knights who was understandably unsure of what to expect from Ian’s parents. Pippa picks up the story: “Phil said to him, ‘look, let’s get one thing straight, I’m a rugby player from a rugby family, I know a lot about Ian and his rugby and he was so happy here, so at no stage am I going to lay blame at your door. This is a hideous situation, and we’ve got to deal with it’.
“Doncaster did everything they could,” adds Pippa, “they really couldn’t have done more. Our concerns were also for the boys, especially as we started to find out where Ian had been and what had happened, which is why we made a point of meeting and thanking them all individually.”
The club immediately rested the No.3 shirt in Ian’s honour and his initials were placed under the club crest.
“There was a bizarre thing on the Thursday after it had happened,” says Pippa. “Abi had been at the club, looking across the ground, when the clouds parted and for a tiny moment, beams of sunlight struck the pitch where Ian had fell. She took a picture of it and sent it to me, saying it was Ian looking down on us, smiling. How extraordinary is that? When Ian and Helen were young, they used to think those beams were all the souls being taken to heaven in a job lot – maybe they were right. It doesn’t half change the perspective of fairly grounded people when things like this happen, but you have to find a way to deal with it.”
For the players, their next match was two weeks later at Cornish Pirates. “We had a long trip to Cornwall and the boys were in a very positive mood, all ready for the game,” explains Michael, “but unfortunately we lost in the last play and that hit us hard. On the bus home you could see how unbelievably emotional it was for us to lose that game – it took so much out of us. I don’t think any of us were prepared for that. It was as if we’d lost the final of the Premiership. It was the biggest game for us as a club and we just lost it, and that did affect us for the rest of the season. It was a real slog and battle to get motivation for training and games – as much as we tried.”
“The effort was always there,” adds Kendo, “but you could see it was getting to them. It’s a tough gig watching a bunch of young fellas see something like that happen, it’s pretty brutal.”
Ian had died, as sister Helen explains to us, from a dissection of the ascending aorta, which means that, in layman’s terms, the aorta had split and the pericardial sac (which contains the heart) had flooded. “There was no electrical activity in his heart,” says Helen, “so he was probably dead before he hit the floor; kind of a relief to know that everyone did everything they could, but there was still nothing they could do.”
Whether it could have been picked up beforehand or not is another thing, but Helen and her family do strongly believe, that Ian and indeed his fellow pros, should be given heart screenings.
It’s why she’s set up The Ian Williams Foundation (theianwilliamsfoundation.org) to work in conjunction with CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) to raise awareness of heart problems and push professional set-ups to carry out screenings. It’s currently not compulsory for clubs at any level to do this.
“The thing for me,” says Helen, “was that I couldn’t have nothing come from this. As soon as we knew it was his heart, even without knowing much about the screening, the first thing I felt was that it should’ve been picked up. And as I looked into it, I found out it was more common than I realised. As soon as it happened, a colleague spoke to me because his son, who was 14, had died playing football from a heart condition. There’s more screening in football because there’s been more high-profile deaths.”
Even though a heart abnormality had been detected, Ian never went on to receive further screenings, although he knew he might have to have a valve replacement in his 40s. But a screening, Helen believes, could have possibly detected a weakness in the aorta. It’s not that clubs don’t screen; indeed Ian only just missed one at a previous club. “We know that London Welsh screened at some stage just after Ian went back to Oxford,” she says. “So he just missed it. But during that screening they picked up something with one player. He stopped playing, had it sorted and now he’s back playing again.
“I think the one statistic that got me was that 12 young people per week die in the UK from heart-related incidents, all under 35s. That’s astonishing.
“There were 400 people at Ian’s memorial, 300 under 35, so that’s got to be one of us, it’s a huge number.
“Screening doesn’t cost that much either,” she says. “Yes, it’s expensive if you’re a club struggling to keep the lights on, but certainly clubs in the Premiership and Championship and perhaps National One could afford it.”
One thing that Helen doesn’t want to do is scare people into not playing rugby. “Ian would kill me if people stopped playing rugby,” she admits. “But if you know there’s something wrong, you can fix it, rather than just taking the risk.”
Fund-raising has already begun snowballing. A game between Oxford and Swansea universities swelled coffers that had already been generously donated to. The impact has been immediate.
Doncaster Knights didn’t just screen their own players following Ian’s death, but also opened it up to the whole local community to come down to the ground to have a screening. “If Premiership and Championship clubs take it seriously, then others will follow suit,” says Helen.
The initial aim of the foundation is to target senior professional squads, then aim for the 13-18 age group with the intention of making it common place in rugby, before moving on to other sports, or even to other countries. “I don’t want it to be stigmatised,” says Helen of the screening. “Otherwise, when I do see him, it would be awful – even if we were both dead he’d be furious.”
If anyone can get a message to everyone, then, according to Pippa, it would be Ian. “He was larger than life with a brain to match,” she says. “He was just as happy chatting to the rubbish man as he was talking to an Oxford don; he could put everyone at ease.”
Ian’s coaches and colleagues both agree that ‘he would’ve made it’ – his commitment to training and determination in life meaning eventually he would have reached his rugby goals.
“I would love to know what he could’ve done,” says Pippa. “He always said he wanted to be known throughout the rugby world and maybe through The Ian Williams Foundation he will be – damn it, he should’ve been more specific with his goals!
“Right now, we’re just trying to work out what our new normal is. We’re just trying to find out how we’re supposed to work as a family without Ian here.
“We all knew he was special,” she continues, “and going by the response, it seems the whole world knew he was special too, so that is a wonderful legacy. If you’re to lose a son, then to know the whole world thinks your son is special, is truly extraordinary.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Han Lee De Boer and the Williams family