When Ita Vaea was asked to present the Brumbies jerseys ahead of this weekend’s quarter-final, it was more than just a motivational boost for the ACT team.
Vaea was first asked to present the jerseys two seasons ago, when it was thought he wouldn’t return to rugby, but he refused, hanging on to the hope he would come back, which he did.
This time around, though, his presence at training and in the dressing rooms signified the real end of his Super Rugby career, after being forced to retire for medical reasons.
Flanker David Pocock said having Vaea’s presence around the club again made them appreciate the chance they have in front of them on Friday night.
“At the jersey presentation, (he said) Bernie asked him to present a couple of years ago and he turned it down because he thought he was a chance of playing again and he played again,” he said.
“Now it's retirement for good.
“It's pretty sobering when you see someone like him who's younger than you having to retire like that and you realise how lucky you are to have the opportunities and makes you want to make the most of them while you do have those opportunities.”
In a rollercoaster year for the Brumbies, Pocock said Vaea’s loss had been the one most keenly felt by the group.
“I mean that loss, that's probably the biggest loss this year for the Brums was him having to retire,” he said.
“He's such a big part of the club and really does epitomise how we want to play as Brumbies. He throws everything into it.”
One player who does have an inkling of how Vaea would be feeling as he watches on Friday night is former Brumbies back Pat McCabe, forced out of the game through injury two seasons ago.
McCabe, who will be commentating the game for ABC on Friday night, watched on injured when the Brumbies lost a thrilling 2013 final to the Chiefs and said looking at the bigger picture was the only way you could think about it.
“I guess Ita, like myself, is probably extremely fortunate to be able to live a long life after rugby,” he said.
“I think he sees the fortunate side as I did as well as the disappointment of having to end your career.
“It's just something that comes with rugby.
“It happens for everyone at some stage. For me and Ita it happened sooner than we would've liked but you just get on with life.”
McCabe, a former teammate of Vaea, said the energy of the backrower was hard to articulate.
“He's just one of those great guys who just brings so much life and energy to the group,” he said.
“While I wasn't there when he announced to the group that he wasn't able to play any more I know it was an extremely emotional time for the whole group.
“He's just one of those larger than life characters around a footy team and someone that a team's built around.
“For him not to be running out there will be something which I think hurts the guys so to have received the jerseys from him would have meant a lot.”