Cardiac problem forces France center Vakatawa to retire
PARIS (AP) — A cardiac problem that jeopardises Virimi Vakatawa’s health when playing elite rugby has forced the France center to end his career.
A day after Vakatawa’s club Racing 92 said medical officials were banning him from playing in France, club doctor Sylvain Blanchard told a news conference on Tuesday that a heart defect was evolving and first diagnosed before the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Blanchard said it was decided at the time that Vakatawa could continue playing under extra medical surveillance but the latest advice was not to take any risk.
“It is a pathology that is likely to put him at risk in intense sports activities,” Blanchard said. “And, obviously, professional rugby is part of those activities.”
Vakatawa played for France first in sevens, including at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, and then in fifteens since the same year. He accumulated 32 test caps. He was out injured while France won the Six Nations Grand Slam this year but was back as the starting center in both test wins in Japan in July.
“It’s tough to leave this family, but I never had regrets,” Vakatawa said on Tuesday. “The toughest moment was yesterday with my teammates. It was very difficult to tell it to all the people I spent time with, on and off the pitch.”
France coach Fabien Galthié choked back tears at the news conference as he paid tribute to Vakatawa.
“Virimi made a lot of children dream,” Galthié said. “He has been a key player in our adventure, in our history, he was great. He was one of the best players in the world in 2020 and 2021. No one can take that away from him.”
The coach added Vakatawa was one of the older players in their young side and embraced his status as a leader, “even if he is discreet and team-oriented.”
The 30-year-old Vakatawa was born in New Zealand, raised in Fiji — the country of his heritage — and arrived in France at 17.
He was convinced to join Paris-based Racing by Fijian star Sireli Bobo in 2010 and became eligible for France from 2013. After Vakatawa gained citizenship, sevens was first to utilize his pace, power and phenomenal footwork.
He couldn’t be ignored by fifteens, and he made a try-scoring debut for France in the 2016 Six Nations and was named man of the match. He was also nominated for the tournament’s best player.
He helped Racing reach two European Cup finals in 2018 and 2020, when he was nominated for European player of the year.
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