Rugby hero fought ‘his illness like a lion’

Paul Van-Zandvliet with wife Helen and daughter Hope Elle.
Paul Van-Zandvliet with wife Helen and daughter Hope Elle.

A rugby hero and former Alnwick landlord who lost his cancer battle has been hailed as courageous and inspirational for the way he ‘fought the illness like a lion’ and tried to help others suffering from the life-threatening condition.

The death of ex-Newcastle Falcons star Paul Van-Zandvliet was announced yesterday after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and cancer of the kidneys and liver last year.

The 50-year-old, from North Shields, used to run the Falcon’s Rest in Alnwick.

He leaves behind wife Helen and children Ryan, Lloyd, Leon, Paul Jnr and Hope Elle – described as daddy’s princess.

Nicknamed Tank in his playing days, he was determined to fight the condition as he underwent gruelling rounds of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

He also used every opportunity to raise awareness of the desperate need for more funding for research into brain tumours so that better treatments and ultimately a cure can be found.

He collaborated with Brain Tumour Research to ‘shine a spotlight on this neglected cancer’, by sharing his story and speaking on the day of the Parliamentary debate into brain tumours on ITV Tyne Tees last year, as well as organising fund-raising events.

He also pledged to collect money for Cancer Research UK, Newcastle RVI and Freeman hospitals, Restart Rugby and the foundation set up to support Hope Elle.

Speaking last year, Tank said: “You can’t imagine how my family and I felt on discovering that I had three types of cancer, having gone to the hospital just to have my back pain assessed.

“I told my family I didn’t want tears. I had been blessed with an amazing sporting life and now I was blessed with a fantastic family which I am so proud of.

“I vowed to take on the fight of my life and as long as I lived and had the strength within me, I would continue to fight. I owed this to my wife and my family. Our family motto became ‘make every day better than the last’. I am also keen to use every opportunity to raise awareness and I hope that when I am gone, my family will continue this vital task.”

Tank joined the Falcons at Kingston Park in 1992 and was part of the side that won the Premiership title in 1998.

He retired early from rugby at the age of 32, after injuries caused by being hit by a car transporter on the Tyne Bridge.

After leaving the professional game in 1999, he remained part of the local rugby scene with involvement at North Shields, Percy Park and Whitley Bay Rockliffe.

A statement on the Newcastle Falcons website read: ‘Having been diagnosed with his illness in early 2016, the prop, who made 22 Premiership Rugby appearances for the club, met his condition in typically uncompromising fashion and set about raising funds for charity and for the foundation set up to support his young daughter Hope Elle.

‘All at Newcastle Falcons extend their deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to Paul’s family and friends at this difficult time. Funeral details will be confirmed by the Van-Zandvliet family in due course.’

A benefit game was staged at the Falcons’ ground last year to raise funds for charities and Tank’s family.

Alnwick band The Tuckers helped provide musical entertainment on the night. Band member James Aitman said: “He was a massive inspiration to myself and the band and he fought his illness like a lion. He was generous and courageous and he will be sorely missed.”

Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under the age of 40, yet just one per cent of the national spend on cancer research has been allocated to this devastating disease. 

Hugh Adams, of Brain Tumour Research, said: “We are saddened to hear the tragic news. Paul bravely helped to shine a spotlight on this neglected cancer.”