Glowing tributes have been paid by the rugby community of Mansfield and Ashfield to a much-loved player who collapsed and died during a match.
Fijian father-of-four Savanaca Kokoibulileka, known locally as Koro, played rugby union for two seasons at Ashfield RUFC and also rugby league for Sherwood Wolf Hunt, based in Mansfield Woodhouse.
However, tragedy struck during the second half of a league game he was playing for Rutland-based Oakham against West Bridgford in the seventh tier of the English rugby union pyramid on Saturday afternoon.
“Apparently, Koro had just scored and had gone back to the halfway-line when he collapsed,” said Ashfield secretary Brian Robb.
An ambulance was rushed to the ground but despite the best efforts of paramedics, he was pronounced dead on arrival at Peterborough City Hospital. The cause of his death has not yet been released.
“Another of our former players, Dan Graney, was also playing in the match for West Bridgford and he said he had never experienced anything like it. He was really upset,” said Robb.
“It’s absolutely devastating because Koro was such a beautiful man. He always played with a smile on his face and never had a cross word about anyone. He was always positive and just a great bloke.
“He played in a variety of positions for us. He started pre-season training with us this year as well, but then he had to move to the Oakham area.
“His death is a terrible tragedy, and our thoughts go out to his family. Why do they always take the best ones?”
Koro played last season and the previous campaign for Ashfield, who plan to hold a minute’s silence and raise money for his family at the matches of all their teams, including the juniors, this weekend.
“Many of the lads have also changed the picture on their Facebook profiles to one of him as a mark of respect,” Robb added.
Koro, who was in his late 30s, was a soldier in the Army and was a member of the 2nd Battalion of The Royal Anglian Regiment. He saw service in Northern Ireland and Iraq before moving to the Ashfield area about three years ago. He lived in Kirkby for a time, and one of his sons attended Kirkby College.
It is understood that Koro had recently been serving with the Military Provost Guard Service, which provides professional soldiers to meet armed security requirements at military bases.
It was while playing rugby union for Ashfield that he got to know Richard Tempest-Mitchell, chairman of Sherwood Wolf Hunt. And he signed to play a handful of matches for them last season, along with his nephew, Manassa, and other family members.
Koro was even due to play for Wolf Hunt on Sunday in a tournament that was subsequently cancelled, but pulled out because of his commitments to Oakham the previous day.
“He was a fantastic fella, a lovely guy and a top rugby player,” said Tempest-Mitchell. “It is such sad news, and our thoughts and love go out to his family.
“He is such a big loss to the local rugby community. We were privileged that he played for our club.”
Tempest-Mitchell added that Koro’s many friends are now “showing their love and appreciation” for him through a JustGiving page that has been set up online by one of Koro’s former Army colleagues, David Smiter, who lives in Northampton.
Smiter created the page aiming to attract donations of £3,500 to “help pay for what the family need at this hard time”, including funeral costs. But the target was reached within a day and stood as high as £7,051 by Tuesday lunchtime.
Smiter, who describes Koro as “a fallen hero and legend”, said: “He loved rugby and was a majestic player. I reckon he could have played for the Fijian national team.
“He was also one of the greatest men I have ever known. Full of of life, funny, loving and a true gent. He was the sort of person that, whatever the situation, he would have a smile on his face and get morale up. You don’t get many people like that these days. He was a one-off.”