Shock as NI-born rugby player dies after collapsing during match

Simon Priestley was born in Northern Ireland and attended Campbell College but spent most of his life between the USA, Scotland and England
Simon Priestley was born in Northern Ireland and attended Campbell College but spent most of his life between the USA, Scotland and England

Tributes have poured in for a rugby player from Northern Ireland who died after collapsing during a match in England on Saturday.

Simon Priestley, a 46-year-old father of two and past pupil of Campbell College in Belfast, collapsed during a match between Henley Rugby Club’s Bears team and High Wycombe.

Despite the efforts of the club physiotherapist, ambulance and air ambulance crews, the popular player and coach was pronounced dead at hospital following his on-field collapse.

It is believed his death was the result of either a heart complaint or an aneurysm.

Tributes have come in for Mr Priestley from rugby greats such as Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll and the World Cup winning England player Will Greenwood.

BT Sport also ran a special tribute programme to the Ulsterman on one of their dedicated sports channels.

The News Letter spoke yesterday to Nick Hower, a close personal friend who had both played and coached alongside Mr Priestley.

Mr Hower said he and many others at the club are having a difficult time coming to terms with the sudden loss of their friend.

“A lot of the blokes you could see the emotion building up in them. When it’s a friend, rather than a family member, not many people have had a friend pass away at 46. How do you deal with it?

“I guess that when you have bereavement in the family, you have your family around you, but when it’s a friend, you can be closer with them in some ways than with family.

“I am really, really struggling with it. I’m trying to hold myself together now. Where do you go?

“He was the guy that when you were a little bit flat, he was the go-to guy. In a way we grew up together. We went through this transitional stage from being stupid, juvenile young men to having good jobs, families, kids.”

He added: “He was such a great, great guy. A fabulous athlete and a great rugby player.”

Mr Priestley, who grew up in Craigavad near Holywood, spent most of his life outside Northern Ireland and had almost ended up representing the USA in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

He had played tennis and squash for Ulster at junior level whilst at Cabin Hill Prep, part of Campbell College in Belfast, before leaving for Scotland where he attended Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh and played for the Edinburgh Wanderers team.

He later left for the USA where he played for ORFU in Oregon, where he met his wife.

Mr Hower said: “He had a final trial for the US Eagles for the Rugby World Cup squad in ‘95. He was a great sportsman, he really was.”

His funeral is due to take place on Wednesday.

‘Above all else, he was a brilliant bloke’

A spokesman for Henley Rugby Club in Oxfordshire paid tribute to Simon Priestley in a statement following his sudden death.

The club described Mr Priestley as “above all else, a brilliant bloke”.

The statement read: “Steadfast, loyal and talented on the one hand, and his sharp wit and sense of fun and joie de vivre were always in evidence in the changing room, in the bar and especially on the many tours that he went on with the club.”

The World Cup winning England player and Sky Sports analyst Will Greenwood also gave his own tribute.

Writing on social media, the former England vice-captain said: “I met Priesters a few times. Wonderful man and one of the fittest 46-years-olds I have ever seen. Makes his sudden passing all the more difficult to process.”

He added: “The rugby family have lost a great man.”

Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll paid his own tribute in a short message in a programme for Henley Rugby Club, writing: “It’s an honour to be able to play some small part of the tribute to Simon. Thinking of you all at this tragic time.”