This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the untimely loss of a legend and the fine balance to be struck in celebration…
A video did the rounds over the past seven days, showcasing the finest aspects of French centre Virimi Vakatawa. Not just his stepping skills, not just his speed and strength, but also his work-rate, his willingness to pitch in defence and scramble with the best of them.
His was not a straightforward story from start to finish. Having been invited over by former Biarritz and Fiji legend Sereli Bobo, Vakatawa made a splash at Racing 92 between 2011 and 2013 before joining the French sevens team full-time to chase his Olympic dream.
But the impression he had left at club level remained, and in 2016 he was given a special contract to play for the France XV side under Guy Noves despite not having a club to play for. He promptly announced his arrival on the international stage with a hat-trick against Samoa.
Racing snapped him up once the Olympics were done and he went on to play over 100 times for the Parisians over his five years there, as well as making 31 appearances for the national side and scoring a further ten tries.
But it was the added dimension he brought that marked him out as different from others of his generation. The sevens instinct for bursting through gaps as well as his ability to offload meant he was a constant thorn to opposing defences – he was often called France’s answer to Sonny Bill Williams.
And then all stop. A small cardiac anomaly had been discovered in 2019, but had been managed enough for him to be deemed fit to play in, and for, France, where there are some quite strict rules governing the risks of participation when such anomalies are known.
Evidently this deteriorated enough that shortly preceding last week’s video came the news that Vakatawa was deemed too high a risk to play professional rugby any more.
“I didn’t feel any symptoms or anything,” he said. “I had a discussion with the doctor. I have nothing broken, everything is fine.” Clearly deeply affected, he also added: “I’m going to stay not far from here, just to clear my head.”
Goes without saying but the Virimi Vakatawa news is terrible and first thought is I hope he’s ok
In 2019 and 2020, there weren’t many who came close to him as a difference maker on both sides of the ball
Also, one of the few people to have been world class in sevens and XVs
— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) September 5, 2022
He was not the only one affected on what has clearly been an emotional seven days in Paris. Fabien Galthie was given special permission to speak at the Racing press conference announcing Vakatawa’s retirement, and was moved almost to tears.
“Fate has meant that he will have played his last two games with Les Bleus in Japan,” he said.
“We will try to get over all that because we know that it can happen in high-level sport, but we still take it with full force.
“Monday, when he called me, it upset me greatly. Virimi made many children dream. When we took over the France team, he was a key player in our adventure, in our history. He is an example of what he lives – we must tell our children to enjoy all their matches as if it were the last.”
An appropriate send-off, for as good as he was, one of Vakatawa’s most compelling traits was his ability to look like he was having the time of his life when he was on the pitch, a trick increasingly few pros seem to manage.
Racing coach Laurent Travers signalled an intent to keep him involved in both club and game, so we can expect to see him on a sideline near you soon enough. Until then we should remember a player whose talent was understated yet ought to be remembered as a once-in-a-generation player.
Crossing the line
The red card issued to Bath’s Niall Annett for entering the field of play – and entering a melee to boot – on Saturday was well-deserved, and Loose Pass has been here before, but the tiresome trend of both over-exuberant celebration and at times, for substitutes warming up in-goal to join in such, means his card will surely not be the last.
There was a time when a try was barely smiled at when scored. Clearly there is far too much riding on a game of rugby these days for anybody to be so modest, but the number of times Loose Pass notices the gamesmanship around the celebratory huddles, the little ‘needle-them-when-they’re down’ shoves, the in-yer-face whoops and jumps and fist-pumps, and hopes that the defending team can keep its cool is too many. The same happens at moments such as turnovers and scrums, which these days are celebrated in the same manner as a derby win might have been celebrated 20 years ago.
Likewise the defending team when retreating from said celebratory huddle often runs into a phalanx of substitutes heading into the huddle. The potential for collision, confrontation, unnecessary aggro, is huge.
Why must we hope the defending team keeps its cool? Is it too much to ask that BOTH teams are able to keep their cool, that the scoring team can keep its attitude and exuberance in check as well as the defending team keeping its frustration? Is it too much to ask that those not involved in the field of play stay outside of it?