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How tragedy stopped Canadian centre

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How tragedy stopped 'the best centre in England outside the Premiership' and the special tribute in his honour

While professional sport invokes drama, excitement, trials and tribulations for players, coaches, officials and fans alike, thankfully it rarely brings tragedy.

But sadly, in the case of much-missed former Canadian international centre John Cannon, it is difficult to find a more appropriate word.

The hard-hitting midfielder was a hugely popular figure both among the Canadian rugby community and at Rotherham, Coventry and Doncaster, where during the first decade of the 21st century he was widely considered as the best midfielder in England outside the Premiership.

Rotherham’s John Cannon tackles Jannie de Beer, of Saracens, in Powergen Cup match on December 16th, 2001. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

But shortly before the 2007 World Cup, his promising career came to an abrupt halt at the age of 26 based on medical advice following a series of bad head injuries.

And nine years later, Cannon suffered a sudden, totally unexpected fatal heart attack. He was just 35.

Cannon won 31 Canadian caps in a career which included a starting appearance against New Zealand at the 2003 World Cup.

Just over a decade on, his successors in the red shirt visit Marseilles during November seeking to prevent Germany, Kenya or Hong Kong from claiming the final spot at Japan 2019.

En route to the south of France, the Canucks are warming up against Cannon’s former club Coventry at the Butts Park Arena on bonfire night, and with his father Peter in attendance, it promises to be an emotional occasion.

Continue reading below…
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The powerful midfielder wore Cov’s historic blue-and-white hoops with great distinction between 2003 and 2005, during which time he became great friends with teammate Ben Gulliver.

Then a young second row, now, via Plymouth, Cornish Pirates, Worcester and Bedford, he is an integral part of Coventry’s thriving community programme, Gulliver has many fond memories of the man he refers to simply as JC, who he said made an instant impression both on and off the field.

“JC was a very abrasive, tough No.12 who ran hard and hit hard, but also distributed well,” he said.

“He was one of Canada’s youngest-ever players, and very highly respected within their team. If it wasn’t for the rules around numbers of non-English qualified players, I’m sure he would have been picked up by a Premiership club – Gloucester certainly had a good look at him.

John Cannon in action for Coventry (left), John Cannon and Ben Gulliver (centre), Ben Gulliver playing for Coventry. (Picture Credit: Coventry Evening Telegraph)

“He was a real fans’ favourite at Coventry during the season-and-a-half he was here, and also at Doncaster where he went afterwards. It was a huge shame that he had to retire so young.

“In those days, the Cov bus back from away games was pretty boozy, and John and I got to know each other returning from an away trip to Yorkshire.

“We became very close, training together in the day then going out in the evenings in Leamington which was where the Canadians lived while they were here.

“At the end of that season JC was really keen that I went to Canada, and another one of our teammates, Jared Barker was getting married in Hawaii. I had John as my tour operator, finding the cheapest way for me to go around North America, it was three-and-a-half weeks of amazing times.

“Everyone will remember John off the field as a real party guy, but also someone who could go into any circle and be comfortable.”

After being named in the 2004 and 2005 National One (as the Championship was then known) dream teams, Cannon moved back to Yorkshire with Doncaster, and in 2006 Rugby World Magazine described him as “perhaps the best centre in England outside the Premiership.”

After the medics called time on his playing days, Cannon returned to North America, and was working in his native Abbotsford for an IT company in a business development role when a tragedy that was felt across the Atlantic struck.

“Jared messaged me saying ‘this is not a joke, JC has passed away,’ Gulliver recalled, “and I couldn’t believe it.

“I drove an hour from Welwyn Garden City to Bedford, beside myself in floods of tears, asking why and how and what had happened.

“It turned out he’d had a massive heart attack out of nowhere. It is all still very raw for his family, girlfriend Christina and friends – I know every time I come into the club at Coventry and see his name on the honours board I am reminded of him.

“I went to the funeral, and took messages on behalf of the English clubs he played for. This match is a special occasion when I’m sure for a lot of people some fond memories will come flooding back.”

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How tragedy stopped 'the best centre in England outside the Premiership' and the special tribute in his honour