PHILIPPE CHAUVIN AND Caroline, his wife, were in the latter stages of planning for the festive season, shopping for a Christmas tree for their family home and their three boys, Antoine, Nicolas and Thomas.
It was 4 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2018, and they were in their local supermarket, just outside Paris. Their middle son, Nicolas, 18, was in Bordeaux playing for the Stade Français Espoirs (in France they call their academy players the “hopefuls”) against their Bordeaux-Bégles counterparts. Nicolas was a promising back-row, making his first start for the academy after having done well as a replacement the five matches previous. Stade were excited about him, and impressed by his attitude and self-motivation.
“He was swimming in happiness,” Philippe remembers of Nicolas that day. “He felt it was the beginning of him realising his dream of playing professional rugby. It was a sport that gave him pleasure, space and freedom — his friends all played it, too.”
Philippe had stayed in Paris instead of travelling the 360 miles to Bordeaux as it was his eldest son Antoine’s 21st birthday the day previous. “Nicolas understood; we had made plans to meet up the following week, anyway,” Philippe says.
Philippe’s phone began to ring. He untangled the layers of warm clothing to see Stade Français coach Remy Clery’s number flashing on his phone. It was strange for the coach to be calling him. Clery spoke slowly but assuredly: Nicolas had been knocked unconscious in a tackle.
Paramedics had spent 20 minutes trying to revive Nicolas on the pitch before he was transported to the intensive care unit at Bordeaux’s Centre Hospitalier Universitaire for emergency surgery. Philippe, a back-row like his son, and his family immediately journeyed to Bordeaux, where they were met by Pascal Pape, Stade Français’ academy director.
Over the next 48 hours, Nicolas’ teammates visited him in the hospital, all hoping for a recovery. But the tackle had fractured the second vertebrae in Nicolas’ spine, which had caused a cardiac arrest and had prevented oxygen from reaching his brain.
Nicolas died late on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. He was 18 years old.
TWO DAYS ON, Stade Français’ first-team played the Ospreys at their Stade Jean Bouin home. During warm-ups, both teams wore T-shirts with a photo of Nicolas smiling on the front; the same photo that had been seen the world over as news outlets reported his death. The stadium was covered in pink, the colours of the Parisian team — the same scarves would later be worn at Nicolas’ funeral.
After the game, just 48 hours after his son died, Philippe stood in the changing room his son dreamed of one day being a part of and addressed the players. “Rugby is a family,” Philippe told them. He spoke of his admiration for their courage in visiting Nicolas in the hospital and wanted them to know that they should continue to live, to achieve, as he had dreamt for his son.
Nicolas Chauvin at age 5. Father Philippe says rugby “was a sport that gave him pleasure, space and freedom — his friends all played it, too.” Courtesy of the Chauvin family
The day following Nicolas’ funeral on Dec. 19, Philippe watched footage of his son’s fatal collision for the first time. He saw Nicolas standing still catching the ball as two opposition players then simultaneously charged into his son looking to make the tackle. One player’s shoulder connected with Nicolas’ head as he was sandwiched between the two opponents. It was a tackle that Philippe believes contravened World Rugby’s laws of the game. Contacted by ESPN for this article, French rugby’s governing body, the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR), stated: “According to the rules at the time of the events, the tackling players’ actions were deemed to be in accordance with the rules of the game by all game officials and did not result in any disciplinary action.”
Nicolas’ death was the third of four French rugby deaths suffered in an eight-month spell. In May 2018, Adrien Descrulhes, 17, was found dead at home the day after he suffered a concussion while playing for Billom Rugby Club — the autopsy showed he had suffered a brain haemorrhage.
Three months later in August, Aurillac academy player Louis Fajfrowski, 21, suffered a “lethal fibrillation” following a chest-high tackle (the blow to his chest disrupted the rhythm of the heart, which triggered three cardiac arrests). Paramedics were unable to revive him in the changing room — his death was later ruled an accident.
A month later, student Nathan Soyeux, 23, died 40 days after being tackled in a match — he had subsequently fallen ill, was admitted to the hospital and was placed into an induced coma for a fortnight. He suffered an adverse reaction as they attempted to bring him out of the coma and died in January 2019.
The quartet of tragedies prompted action. World Rugby unveiled a five-point injury prevention plan last February that focused on tackle height, with CEO Brett Gosper alarmed by the “unusual spike” in fatalities within the sport.
A month earlier, Philippe received a standing ovation from rugby stakeholders and personalities as he finished his opening remarks at a symposium organised in Nicolas’ honour at the University of Paris-Descartes. All those present loved the game, but all agreed it was just that: a game, and not one that should result in fatalities. The symposium took on three questions: Is rugby more dangerous than ever before? Is rugby in France more dangerous than in other countries? Is rugby more dangerous than other sports?
The questions remain unanswered.
Philippe told those present “there is nothing normal about the death of my son Nicolas… life is precious, it should not be a game.” He told the room how the injury his son sustained was more commonly associated with road or skiing accidents. He’d later show a video analysis to the powerbrokers in French rugby and to the investigators who looked into Nicolas’ death.
The great France attack coach Pierre Villepreux was present. Five days after Nicolas’ death, he spoke animatedly about how rugby had lost its values and was now an “arms race” with young players encouraged to become golgoths (giants or monsters) rather than technical players.
Hugging the whole symposium was the love for the sport and concern for its long-term health.
“The message was a double one,” Philippe tells ESPN. “The first was that rugby remains a great educational tool with real values. But we shouldn’t hide from those values because if we do, life goes on and nothing will change following Nicolas’ death.
“Players need to be dissuaded from attempting the impossible, otherwise it will happen again. My message to the game now, as it was then, is that players need to understand the laws and they need to be applied better. There need to be appropriate consequences.”
They used to call Nicolas ‘the lawnmower’ in his early playing days. “He was always low to the ground when he made a tackle; he grabbed the legs and got the player down. It’s the only decent method,” Philippe says, smiling as he remembers how he taught Nicolas this technique. Rugby runs through the Chauvin family. Philippe remembers Nicolas, just out of his push-chair, coming to watch him play on the weekend and then going off and copying his dad in the park at Boulogne, four miles or so from the middle of Paris.
It was meant to be Nicolas’ 19th birthday on July 11, 2018, but instead of celebrating it, the family were hearing how the Bordeaux public prosecutor’s office had closed the investigation into Nicolas’ death, deeming it an accident.
“We were disappointed when that finished, as we were on our own again — despite the collective emotion and people talking about rugby and how we can improve it,” Philippe says. “I don’t know what the conclusion and report said about my son’s death.
“To crash into a human body and specifically their head at 25 kph is deadly. I think the system we’re currently using means rugby is a game of destruction, rather than construction and evasion.
“Today, bodies are highly developed — my son was 1.95 m (6-foot-5) and 95 kg (209 pounds), he wasn’t fragile — and the direct, confrontational style that is played today is dangerous.”
Nicolas, right, with his father Philippe at a rugby match in France. “My son was 1.95m and 95kg, he wasn’t fragile,” says Philippe. Courtesy of Philippe Chauvin
Philippe filed a manslaughter lawsuit in October, for which a judge is still to be appointed before it can proceed. The case does finally grant him access to the original report into his son’s death. He doesn’t seek or hope for any public pity — far from it, and his voice becomes animated as he gets this point across — but he wants this complaint to be a line in the sand for the sport. “We need to establish the objective facts around Nicolas’ death; anything other than that would be a betrayal to him,” Philippe says. “We need to ensure everyone in the game knows the dangers.”
You sense he needs these questions answered to move on. He wants the complaint to establish whether anyone was negligent and why the security of his son was not safeguarded.
But he feels rugby is not ready to face the potentially fatal consequences of the sport.
“I remain quite skeptical about anyone who thinks that nothing happened,” Philippe says. “I don’t understand that.”
Bernard Laporte, the FFR director, has previously issued his unwavering support for the Chauvins’ cause, but when asked about the lawsuit, he responded: “The FFR respects the grief of all the families involved in the tragic accidents as it always has, and has no comment on the steps taken by Mr Chauvin.”
Philippe is determined, a man trying to find the justice he feels his son’s legacy deserves. He cannot allow Nicolas’ name to fade from rugby’s consciousness.
“I can’t leave this alone,” Philippe says. “I cannot say it’s time to give up, to stop. Our children’s safety is at stake. But until then… I will keep moving forward, on my own.”
WE MET IN November 2019, in the office of Stade Français academy director Pascal Pape. We talked about the looming first anniversary of Nicolas’ death — “I spent a while dreading the date, but I learnt I couldn’t dread it too much, because it is what it is,” Philippe says — and about the recently concluded Rugby World Cup. Philippe loved the attacking freedom of hosts Japan, and the footwork of Virimi Vakatawa of France, but his expression changes to concern, shuddering as he recalls watching the big hits.
He gestures with his hands to demonstrate the impacts. “Bad memories flood back, and then there is the complete incomprehension when I see referees failing to sanction players properly. We just think that if a guy is getting up again after a tackle, then he is fine. But in my son’s case, he did not get up.
“I feel like people in France have admitted that it was a terrible thing that happened to my son, but they want to move on. That’s not what rugby’s values stand for.”
That’s what this all comes back to: values, and a fear the game is forgetting them.
There were tributes before rugby matches in France and beyond after the death of Nicolas Chauvin in December 2018. SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP via Getty Images
He recently called on each professional club in France to broadcast pre-match a section of World Rugby’s Law 9 to serve as a reminder to players and supporters alike. It reads: “Players must not do anything that is reckless or dangerous to others.” Philippe has recently been told by Stade Francais general manager Thomas Lombard that they are the first club in the Top 14 to adopt this — the law is now on both the home and away changing room doors.
The FFR, when contacted by ESPN for their response to Philippe’s wish, said it has led the way in trialing a lower tackling height at community level, as it seeks to make the game safer with a “zero tolerance policy on unacceptable behaviour such as unfair or dangerous play.” Its #bienjoue project focuses on increasing awareness around unfair play and notes a decrease in serious accidents. World Rugby has recently rolled out global trials for new frameworks around the tackle area, and say the latest World Cup showed a reduction in concussion and injury rates, which they put down to that five-point injury plan launched last year.
Philippe’s motivation is to improve and safeguard the game, but he needs help from the powerbrokers and stakeholders who constantly preach of their love for rugby. Philippe has not heard from Laporte, the FFR director, since April 2019.
As we finished up, Pape, the current Stade Français academy director, walked back into his office and was asked about his memories of Nicolas, the young, promising, smiling back-row. He tells us he wants the academy training centre or accommodation centre to be named after Nicolas. “He will always be part of our history,” Pape says. “He died on the pitch, wearing the Stade Français shirt. We must not forget him.”
WHEN THE ANNIVERSARY arrived, on Dec. 12, 2019, Philippe’s family gathered to remember Nicolas and his love for rugby, and they allowed memories to flash through their mind. They had held a peaceful, religious celebration on Nov. 2 in Paris, but the anniversary itself gave them a chance to welcome Nicolas’ friends and reminisce about a life cut far too short.
But there is a fire burning within them, seeking the justice they believe Nicolas’ life deserves. “It remains a great sport for my children and for players, but not at any price,” said Philippe.
“The final thing at my door today is that Nicolas did not die for nothing. He loved this sport and he was happy.”
At the end of our interview, Philippe had to get back to his day job in French transport. He wandered off into the Paris morning; a face in the crowd, but someone who is determined to leave a long-lasting impact on the game that his son died playing. He will not rest until the sport he loves wakes up, even if it means fighting for it alone.
Additional reporting and translation by James Harrington.