Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart has paid tribute to winger Kato Ottio, who died on Tuesday morning at the age of 23 after suffering a sudden health issue at training.
The Papua New Guinea international, who was a Raiders squad member last year and had signed to play with Widnes Vikings in the 2018 Super League, was remembered by Stuart as a "very respectful young man".
“Receiving the devastating news this morning from (Raiders recruitment and high performance manager) Peter Mulholland knocked me for six. It was hard to believe given the age of Kato and how I remembered him here, I am really lost for words," Stuart said.
"Kato was an important part of our club and very close mate to all our boys and staff. He was a very respectful young man who appreciated everything we were doing for him here in adjusting to life in Canberra and learning his trade in becoming a professional football player.
"He was very close to his family and my heart and prayers go out to them. I just could not imagine what they are going through at this moment."
Ottio represented Papua New Guinea at last year's World Cup and was due to travel to the UK next week to link with his new club.
PNG Rugby Football League chairman Sandis Tsaka said Ottio died at 2am at the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby.
Raiders chairman Don Furner said the whole club was devastated.
"It is just a terrible shock and we all feel for his family and friends," he said.
"It's way too young, for sure."
The Raiders' welfare officers will be talking to players in light of Ottio's popularity among teammates.
"There are a few players he lived with that he was very close to. They shared a house together and trained together," Furner said.
"They are just absolutely shattered."
Widnes Vikings chief executive James Rule said Ottio's death had shocked the club.
"We are devastated to learn that Kato Ottio has passed away this afternoon. Kato was an incredibly talented player, with a bright future ahead of him in rugby league," Rule said in a statement.
"This news is all the more tragic, because Kato was due to travel to the UK this week to fulfil his dream of playing first-grade rugby league. We had been in regular contact with Kato and were excited to welcome a bright, excited and passionate young man, who had genuine potential for the future.
"Having only learned this morning that Kato had developed a sudden health issue whilst training yesterday, we are in absolute shock to now receive this tragic news.
"We will be liaising closely with his loved ones to offer them our condolences and support at this difficult time. Widnes Vikings will of course be looking to celebrate Kato's life and pay our sincere respects to someone who we believe would have become a hero at our club."