France international Virimi Vakatawa, who quit rugby last year due to a heart condition, has come out of retirement to join Bristol Bears in a shock signing.
France head coach Fabien Galthie broke down in tears during the press conference when Vakatawa said he was leaving the game at 29.
Then playing for Racing 92, the club’s doctor Sylvain Blanchard explained that a “cardiological anomaly” had been discovered before the 2019 Rugby World Cup and had since evolved, potentially placing Vakatawa “in danger in any kind of high-intensity sporting practice”.
However Vakatawa returned to the field for the Barbarians this summer, playing under Bristol coach Pat Lam, who has now brought the 31-cap France international to the West Country.
🗣 Fabien #Galthié « Je suis très ému, quand on reçoit une nouvelle comme ça, ça touche forcement. Virimi a été un joueur clé de notre aventure. Il faut dire a tous ceux qui font du rugby de profiter de chaque instant sur le terrain » #Top14 #FranceRugby pic.twitter.com/lqszkyDRb6
— Sud Radio Rugby (@SudRadioRugby) September 6, 2022
“Following an independent review by an expert panel of leading sports cardiologists, Vakatawa has been granted clearance to return to the professional game and agrees a deal until the end of the 2023/24 season,” Bristol announced.
Vakatawa scored 31 tries in 146 games for Racing, having previously been capped by Les Bleus when he was without a club and playing for France’s sevens side, going on to score 10 tries for France.
The dangerous attacker, who can line up either as a centre or wing, will add plenty of threat to Bristol’s backline following the summer departures of Semi Radradra and Charles Piutau.
Lam said: “I am really pleased to be able to bring a player of Virimi’s class and quality to Bristol and the Gallagher Premiership as it’s exciting for our team, our supporters and our competition.
“I had the privilege of getting to know V better on and off the field recently and it was very clear to me that he would add real value to the Bears and would bring more depth and experience to our backline.
“Virimi is desperate to get back to playing at the highest level – for the Bears to be able to bring in a player of his quality is a huge statement for the Premiership and we’re delighted that he has chosen to continue his rugby journey with us.”
On Friday, Lam explained that Bristol’s medical team had enlisted the help of a panel of independent cardiologists to undertake almost a week of examinations prior to finalising Vakatawa’s arrival.
“I looked into it and we agreed a contract but the most important thing was our medical team organising to have expert cardiologists come in,” Lam said.
“[Vakatawa] was involved in that process for five or six days and we had to sit and wait while they went through those tests. Once he passed, that was great news for him. He is just buzzing to get back playing rugby.
“It’s great news for his family and for us, as the Bears, and the Premiership. Everyone around the world is pleased that he is going to come back and play rugby. It’s a positive story for everybody.”
“I saw [he was ready] in the Barbarians game [against Samoa in Brive], in 35-degree heat,” Lam added. “Most important was that he was confident. He went through all the rigours of the tests, which was a pretty thorough process, I understand. You trust the experts, and they gave him the green light.”
Vakatawa will be viewed predominantly as an outside centre at Bristol, though could be shifted to the wing. Having lost both Radradra and Piutau over the summer, Lam is grateful to be bringing in another explosive back.
“He would not have been the number one centre in France if he was just about X-factor,” Lam said of Vakatawa, who won 32 caps for Les Bleus. “There’s his turnover [ability], his tackling, his work-rate. He creates things for guys around him. I’m saying the same things as I did about Semi and Charles.”
Vakatawa added: “I’m excited to be joining Bristol Bears and to be continuing my rugby career at the highest level. After working with Pat during my time with the Barbarians, I knew that this was the right place for me and I can’t wait to play in front of the Bristol fans.
“The Premiership has always been an exciting competition, so I’m looking forward to experiencing it this season, and representing the Bears in the Champions Cup.”