The family of a popular Rugby Lions coach who died on holiday after being hit by a giant wave said they are ‘absolutely devastated’.
Robert Walton, 36, suffered whiplash after being struck by a powerful wave in a supervised swimming area in Labenne, in south-western France.
Paramedics were called to the world-famous surfing beach at 2pm on Monday August 10 and spent nearly an hour trying to revive the former rugby star.
But tragically the dad-of-four, who was on holiday with his wife and children, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr Walton was bathing at the beach in the Landes region of Aquitaine - which faces the open Atlantic and boasts the largest number of surf spots in Europe.
Preliminary investigations by local police revealed he was “hit in the spine by a big wave” and suffered whiplash.
In a statement issued to the BBC, Mr Walton’s family said they were ‘devastated’ by his death.
The statement said: “Rob’s wife Gemma, his parents, sister and all the family are absolutely devastated by their loss.
“He was a larger than life character and touched everyone around him, whether that was on the rugby pitch, coaching, spending time with his beautiful children or having fun with his vast circle of family and friends.
“We would ask everyone to give us some time to try to come to terms with the huge hole he will leave in our lives and fully respect our privacy.”
Mr Walton, who was known as ‘Yoghurt’ or ‘Horse’ to pals, began his rugby career at Hinckley RFC where he played for every age group.
The talented lock played alongside All Blacks stars Richie McCaw and Dan Carter when he played for Shirley RFC in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2001.
Mr Walton was also playing for Birmingham and Solihull RFC when they famously beat Premiership giants Wasps in a cup quarter final in 2004.
He continued playing in the second tier of English rugby for Rotherham and Coventry and had another stint back at Hinckley before retiring.
Mr Walton then went into coaching and had just completed his second season at Rugby Lions, guiding them to two successive promotions.
In a statement issued yesterday (Tuesday), the club said: “It is with great sadness to announce the death of Lions Head Coach and friend.
“Yoghurt was instrumental in the rebuilding of Lions and his hard work, determination and sense of humour will be sadly missed by us all.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family at this sad time.
“He may have passed away but he will not be forgotten. Once a Lion, always a Lion.”
Director of Rugby at Hinckley RFC, Paul Walsh, added: “I spoke to him only a month ago.
“Rob was a massive person in every sense, he was honest, reliable, and a fantastic individual and a big personality.
“Ive known him for 20 years since he was a lad. I met him when he was 13 or 14 playing for the county and coached him.
“He was a good player who played at the highest level in the Championship and a proper rugby man through and through.
“I always thought he would end up back with us but obviously that wont happen now.
“Its a massive loss to the club, his father is a good friend of mine and cant imagine what they must be going though.”
Hinckleys fixtures and press secretary Steve Avent said: “I met Rob when he was 10 and he was with the Scouts until he was 17.
“He really was a gentle giant and didnt have a bad bone in his body. He always helped the younger children when he was with us.
“He was an outstanding lineout jumper and second row forward at the top level.
“Obviously a tremendous shock. The thoughts of everyone with the club are with his family.”
A spokesperson for Coventry Rugby Club said: “Its with great sadness to hear the passing of former player Rob Walton, ‘Horse’, a gentleman of the game.”
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson said: “We can confirm the death of a British National in France on August 10.
“We are in contact with the family to offer support at this difficult time.”