|Hosts: England Appointment: October 15 to November 19|
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Participating in a World Cup is precious for any player, but for Anthony Walker, participating in this year’s tournament will be very special.
The Welsh prop was forced into retirement just days before the 2017 tournament after being diagnosed with a life-threatening brain condition – an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – which he had unknowingly had since birth.
AVM is an abnormal tangle of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins that affects less than 1% of the population, leaving sufferers with a much higher risk of a life-threatening burst – meaning Walker could no longer play rugby league.
“I was in the World Cup squad in 2017, but the week before we left I was knocked out playing for my club,” the 30-year-old said.
“I had to have scans and…they found an abnormality in my brain that I was born with.
“The surgeon said the impact injury wasn’t that bad and would get better with time, but something else was reported.
“We did another scan and he saw an AVM which affects 1 in 250,000 people, with 1 in 50 dying from it every year.
“The advice they gave me was that you play a contact sport, you get hit in the head, there’s a much better chance than one in 50 of mine popping.
“If it breaks out, you’ll probably die…I was advised to retire on medical grounds the day before we flew to Australia for the 2017 World Cup.
“I sat in the car when the specialist told me in Manchester and I was in shock. I thought everything would be fine and everything would be fine.
“But then having you waste your life like that’s all I was doing at the time – playing rugby full time – so walking into a room with a job and walking out without a job was pretty tough.
“It’s funny because the first person I called was not my father or my partner at the time, it was John Kear the head coach of Wales and I apologized and I I said I’m sorry but I’m not allowed.
“He was great and really supported me but I was in shock at first. But Rugby League was really good, they gave me a lot of support and help and I was lucky to get in straight into a job that was really good at paying my mortgage.
“It was quite difficult watching the boys in Australia because you think you can help the team and then not being allowed to play for something you didn’t even know you had.
“After the initial shock of the first week or two and once the tournament was over I was fine as there was no rugby on TV as the World Cup is at the end of the year, so I wouldn’t have played anyway.
“I was OK for six or seven months and then when the rugby league season started again, that’s when I really realized that I’m not doing what I’ve been doing since then. age of six.”
Walker made his professional debut for St Helens in 2013 before moving to Wakefield in 2015, along with loan spells with Whitehaven, Dewsbury and Rochdale – who he was playing for when he suffered that fateful whim.
Although he could no longer play, he remained involved in the game he loved coaching amateur team Blackbrook and the Wales Under-19s, and worked for the Rochdale Hornets.
But Walker always believed he could one day return to the field.
“The treatment options they offered me was open brain surgery, but that wasn’t for me because it (AVD) had never given me any problems,” he said.
“The other option was radiotherapy, but that takes two years for her to fully retract and that’s the one I decided to go for.
“I found out in October and it was the following April and then it took two years for it to shrink and then within two years I had a scan and they found the treatment had worked and that ‘he disappeared.”
It was in April 2020 that Walker received the green light from the Rugby Football League to return to the professional ranks. Even this return was complicated.
“I had two years of treatment and got the all clear two years ago but then Covid hit so I couldn’t play then so I didn’t make any of the playoffs (from the World Cup),” he said.
It was Kear who helped pave the way for Walker’s return to action, with the Wales boss inviting the pre-season prop to his Bradford Bulls side and then signing him on.
Kear left Bradford to become Widnes Vikings head coach last July and it’s no surprise Walker has now followed a man he says he would ‘walk through a brick wall’ to Halton Stadium , Widnes announcing the signing of Walker last week on a two-year contract.
“Having the chance to play last season and obviously the World Cup was pushed back a year probably helped me a bit to come back to the team this year,” Walker said.
“It’s been a really crazy five years, kind of like a roller coaster, but I’ve come back to where it ended.
“Coming to the World Cup in 2013 was really great, to qualify for 2017 and then to have it all shattered, and now to get back to where it was.
“When I came back to play two years ago, it was my goal to come back to this World Cup team.”
‘Friends for life’
Wales kick off their World Cup campaign against the Cook Islands on Wednesday October 19 in Leigh.
They face Tonga at St Helens on Monday October 24 before a final group game against Papua New Guinea in Doncaster seven days later.
“Outside of this Wales camp, nobody realizes how good this Wales camp is,” added Walker.
“We’re a very tight-knit group and people say all the time that you make friends for life, but at this camp in Wales you really make friends for life.
“You also create amazing experiences off the pitch. I think I’ll be proud of myself when I step away from it, but when you’re in the moment you don’t really realize, but when I retire I could looking back and maybe I’m prouder than I am now because I’m in the moment.”
#bursts #youll #die