England rugby league star Kallum Watkins has been released by National Rugby League side Gold Coast Titans in order to return home to the United Kingdom due to “serious family health concerns”, after his father contracted coronavirus.

The 29-year-old, who has won 25 England caps and featured at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, left boyhood club Leeds Rhinos in 2019 to move to Australia and test himself on the biggest stage, although a serious knee injury last season limited his playing time to just a handful of appearances Down Under.

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With the NRL season paused due to the coronavirus crisis, Gold Coast were yet to see the best of the former Super League centre, but a statement on Saturday confirmed his immediate departure after learning that his father had become ill back home in Britain.

It’s understood that Watkins is already back in the UK with his wife and children set to follow imminently, and his manager Chris Orr confirmed that the decision had been taken because “family comes first”.

A statement issued by Australian club Titans read: “The Gold Coast Titans have granted a request from English Test centre Kallum Watkins for an immediate release from his NRL contract, so that he can return to the United Kingdom for personal reasons.

“After a period of recovery from a knee reconstruction and adjustment to the NRL last year, a terrific pre-season had the 29-year-old set to deliver his best for the Titans in 2020.

“However, some serious family health concerns have forced Watkins and his family to immediately move his family back to the UK, bringing his time at the Gold Coast – and his long-stated desire to prove himself in the NRL – to a premature end.”

Watkins won three Super League titles at Leeds while making more than 250 appearances since joining their academy in 2007, which cemented his place as one of the leading centres in the division and caught the interest of Australian side Gold Coast, who signed him halfway through the 2019 campaign.

The former Rhinos captain was unable to turn the Titans’s fortunes around as they finished bottom of last season’s NRL table, having arrived injured after undergoing knee reconstruction on his anterior cruciate ligament – an injury that curtailed his Leeds career prematurely.

But even in his limited time with the club, head coach Justin Holbrook praised the impact that Watkins had made on the changing room, and added that he leaves with the best wishes of all involved within the Titans.

“Kallum has only been here for a short time, but he is an immensely popular guy in the playing group,” Holbrook said. “Every day he exhibited the qualities that the club wanted from him – namely his leadership and his professionalism.

“I am mostly just bitterly disappointed for Kallum – firstly that he has to endure this awful situation with health concerns with family members, and secondly that he has had to walk away from his dream of proving himself in the NRL.

“He worked incredibly hard in the off-season, and that hard work was evident in the form we saw from him at the start of the season – in the trial against the Broncos, and then our two premiership games against Canberra and Parramatta.

“For him to have to walk away now just as he was getting back to his best is devastating for him, and for us as his friends.

“But family always comes first, and we would never stand in Kallum’s way of doing what is best for his family in a very difficult time.

“He leaves the Titans with our thanks and best wishes, for him and his family.”

Watkins’ wife Sophie posted a message on her Instagram page to thank the Titans for their understanding and to confirm that she will fly back to Britain with the couple’s three children next week, adding “thanks for the memories (Australia). Onto the next chapter after a whirlwind year”.

Watkins’ availability will put a number of clubs on alert over his next move, but his immediate concerns are for his family at a time of national crisis.

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