Sunday 22 October 2017

'So many coaches are imprisoned by rules - rules are the enemy!'

French icon Jean-Pierre Rives laments lost virtues of the sport he once graced

A bloodied Rives playing against Wales in 1983
A bloodied Rives playing against Wales in 1983
'Rugby needs a revolution,' says the former France star and now full-time sculptor Jean-Pierre Rives. 'But I cannot lead it. I am, how do you say, a little too dangerous.'
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" ("We need audacity, and then more audacity, and then always audacity"), - Georges Danton, French revolutionary

Not for nothing does the great Jean-Pierre Rives quote from one of his country's foremost revolutionary figures.

Too often, Rives despairs of the game that he once graced.

Like those great artists who illuminated innocent childhoods, from Hoddle to Higgins, Seve to McEnroe, it often seemed as if the green canvas was too restricted for the flaxen-haired flanker's vast talent and limitless personality.

Thirty years after his last appearance on Irish soil, the trademark flowing locks may be thinning and greying - he was nicknamed Casque D'Or (Golden Helmet) - but there still remains a figure of devotion to a sport that has lost its way.

"Rugby needs a revolution," says the 63-year-old, now a full-time sculptor, although he remains, not surprisingly, the president of the French Barbarians.

"But I cannot lead it. I am, how do you say, a little too dangerous. I promote freedom with the Barbarians. I give the players the power, not the coaches or the systems. Life is too short."

Rives began his life as an artist and it is to this discipline he has returned in later life; his renown in the art world matches the reverence in which he once enraptured the sporting theatre.

In any event, the pursuits are inextricably linked: "passion, grandeur, energy, emotion."

His father had wanted the young Jean-Pierre to play tennis.

"I was a sleepy guy," says Rives of his childhood days in Toulouse. "He thought if I was tackled it might wake me up. It never woke me up.

"I'm too relaxed for everything. It didn't work for him, it was a bit of a shock for him because I remained the same."

But, you protest, during his then record 34 times captaining France to a Grand Slam, and two championships (one shared with Ireland), his fearsome tackling and swashbuckling play hardly betrayed somnolence?

"Non, but before and after, yes!" he chuckles enigmatically. The Mediterranean home he shares with second wife Sonia, and two young boys, Jasper and Kino-Jean, houses not a single memento of his life in rugby. He has no need for tangible trinkets.

"I gave away all my medals," he explains. "I could probably have ended up losing them or something, I don't know. But I remember all the players I played with, you know.

"And that is much more important than any jersey. And anyway, I don't want my kids to grow up in some old museum.

"The memories are in my soul. And these memories make me happier when I think of them. I have so many friends in rugby."

Many are Irish, from the dearly departed Moss Keane - "We always understood each other," Mossy recalled once - to his back-row opponent Fergus Slattery. Thirty years ago this month, Ireland defeated France in Lansdowne Road en route to the sides sharing that year's title; Rives still recalls the emotion of playing in Dublin.

"When I played in that stadium, it was like playing the whole country. And when I played against Fergus, it was like he had someone else in his body, you know? He was so impressive, so strong.

"They played rugby liked they lived life. For the code of rugby should be the code of life."

These days, though, he despairs of the sport he and his French side once defined with their grace and glamour; France arrive in Dublin after another try-less outing to face an Ireland side where their out-half says he hears his coach's voice in his head while he plays the game.

"We should send the coaches to Bermuda for the time of the game and then let come back afterwards. The remote control is worthless, it's not necessary.

"We need a revolution. So many coaches are imprisoned by rules too. The rules are the enemy.

"Style comes from character, but character has been killed in so many ways. The players on the field are the boss so let them decide. We have to manage the rules so that the system shows that talent.

"The ball is the star. People want to see the ball. Kids want to see it being passed. But now they copy the older players and they hide the ball too! It's not very glamorous! Everyone should pass the ball, otherwise it's not very funny, not exciting.

"When we speak about rugby, we need to speak about the kids, the new generation, la transmission. This is their mission. That is why rugby is so good, you can be quick or fat or small or tall, it does not matter.

"Other sports reject, rugby includes all. It's magic. I just want to see a team go from one corner to the other and score.

"The system tells you do this, do that, do this. It's not a game any more, it's like a trial, it's like a test. The players are talented, they work hard so let them play.

"You have to be unpredictable. That's what makes the difference, that's what makes it enjoyable. Otherwise, we might as well all play it on a tablet like the kids do.

"The pitch needs to be made bigger, you need more space, or else you put less players but that exists already in another code. Alternatively, you need to change the rules.

"Rugby is all about bringing players from the left corner to score over in the right corner, or the opposite.

"And for this to happen, you have to pass the ball. Nobody passes any more!

"It is half American Football and half rugby league and all the coaches are copying each other with systems and rules.

"We need to adapt the rules. Every team is playing the same, which is terrible. Before you could recognise Irish play, French play.

"The French play loses a lot because it is organised. And the French do not cope well with organisation.

"You know what we say. An English guy goes down in order, and we go up in disorder!"

Rives wants the ball to be liberated, as well as the players. Hiding the ball, for him, is like throwing a blanket across the Mona Lisa.

"Rugby is about passing the ball," he reiterates, having called again many hours later to offer a solution to back up his spirited defiance.

"Maybe if a guy isn't able to pass a ball before he's tackled, the team should lose the ball. The one that stops the passing should lose the ball, then there may be something different.

"You need to play it in one, two or three seconds. It's too difficult to contest the ball now, then the referee gives a penalty and nobody in the stands know why and sometimes even the players and coaches don't know why, it's mad!

"Having the ball is a responsibility. If you kill the ball, you should lose it. Penalise the person who hides the ball.

"The way it happens now is that the person who hides the ball gets to keep it. I'm not an expert, I don't know the rules, I know nothing. I was always sent back ten metres by the referee.

"Maybe," he adds with a flourish, "the try should be worth 50 points."

An hour later, he calls back.

"David, encore, if a try is scored after three passes, make it 1,000 points!"

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