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Virimi Vakatawa breaks silence on his return to play in England

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

Former France midfielder Virimi Vakatawa has spoken out for the first time about his career lifeline in England at the age of 31. It was September last year, prior to the start of the 2022/23 Top 14 season, when the Fijian-born Racing 92 centre was forced into retirement after French medics refused to give him a licence to play due to a heart anomaly.


It was a massive blow as he was on track to represent France at the 2023 Rugby World Cup having been part of their 2022 Guinness Six Nations success.

However, an invite from Pat Lam to play for the Barbarians in their August match in Brive versus Samoa resulted in a follow-up call from the Bristol boss the following month and Vakatawa has since made six Gallagher Premiership appearances, five as a starter for the Ashton Gate club.

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Ahead of Bristol’s next match away to Saracens on Saturday, Vakatawa has broken his silence on his switch to England in an interview with Midi Olympique, the bi-weekly French rugby newspaper. He didn’t want to dwell on the past, instead focusing on his future.

“I’m fine. We’re not going to talk about medical and the past. Let’s just talk about the present and the future,” he began, going on to explain getting the medical green light to play in England.

“The specialist I saw here gave me permission to play again. I do not want to talk about France. I love this country and I don’t want to say anything. I respect the decision that was taken by the French doctors.

“I had a very difficult time but I always had hope. Even though some people don’t want to believe it, say I’m crazy and I’m risking my life, I’m happy with the decision I made to play again. In my heart, I knew I was going to do it. My faith in God guided me to this.


“Being a player is everything I have dreamed of since I was a kid in Fiji. Rugby is my job. I am the only one working and helping my family in Fiji. Rugby is my life. Two weeks after the doctor told me to stop, I was already working out and not staying home eating pizza.

“When I was in Paris, I trained alone. I was trying to stay in shape by running and weight training. It wasn’t the same as training with a rugby team. There’s not much you can do when you’re alone.

“To be honest, Pat Lam and I met in the Barbarians game against Samoa but we didn’t really have a discussion about it. It wasn’t until a little later that Pat called me to ask if I wanted to come. I was a bit surprised but I was looking for a club so I said, ‘Why not?’ I’d missed all that, you know…

“Nothing has changed in the way I play rugby… For the rest of the season, it’s just a matter of time before I’m back to my true level. Two or three more weeks and you’ll be fine.”


Ironically, next month will be the opportunity for Vakatawa to play for Bristol away in Bordeaux in the European Challenge Cup, a fixture he wouldn’t be allowed to take part in if he was representing a French club.

“It will be special but it will also do me good to play in France. When I signed for Bristol, it was the first time I left Racing 92 and France.”


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