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Revolution needed to restore true spirit of rugby: Rives

By Peter Bills

The World Cup is in full flow in his own country, rugby fever is high. From Toulon to Toulouse, Biarritz to Beziers, the nation is fuelled by hope for Bernard Laporte's men dsepite their opening game defeat against Argentina.

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Yet France's most famous rugby player delivers a withering indictment of the game he graced so elegantly and with such success.

Jean Pierre Rives insists that challenges of far greater importance than simply a World Cup confront the game in this, its 13th season of professionalism.

" We need a revolution in this game for we must make sure there is still creation and invention in the game of the future.

"At the moment, rugby has become like a machine. But where is the fun?

" I believe we must fight against this sort of attitude for it is a crime. People must still enjoy rugby, still have fun from the game.

" Friendship, comradeship, pleasure, fun . . . these are the qualities that made this game so great and they are qualities we have to keep in it somewhere.

"If it becomes just a job, then you have killed the dream, the invention and any creative spirit. Then it is no longer rugby and we can play this sport on Play Station. You don't need the real thing if those qualities are lost.

"But this game should not be like a Play Station game: you don't just change the battery, read the rules and that's it. It is not an army on manoeuvres, a physical contest.

" The modern game has become too predictable, like American Football. At the moment, the players are like Sumo wrestlers; it is as if it is just a show."

Accuse Rives, if you will, of being lost in the mists of time, in days when rugby was played for fun and comradeship meant more than Cups. But what the Frenchman always brought to rugby was a perspective, a grasp of reality and awareness of the qualities that have made this sport what it is.

Before the angry brigade, the paid officials who populate the game these days cry foul, it is worth pointing out that Rives watched one match involving Super 14 side Western Force in Australia a few months back and admired the rugby they produced for its vivacity, imagination and skill. "It was a fantastic game" he says, thus denying vehemently charges of being lost in a time warp.

But he is not impressed by much of the modern game, its focus on grunt over grace, and its apparent mania for size at the expense of cunning and skill. He watched France beat England at Marseille recently and exclaimed: "They watch videos of themselves and their opponents for days before a match, they do all this training, all this practice, all these prepared moves and all this nonsense."

" But for what ? For THIS? Rugby is not a game of chess where you must have certain moves ready to use. This game needs invention and creation.

"In our day, we had to run and catch people to make a tackle. Now players run into each other. The players have never been bigger or stronger but for what? You see nothing in most modern games: no passes, no risks, just players crashing into each other. It is stupid."

It is Rives' contention that France has suffered more than any other country from the move to professionalism. The demands of the professional code, he suspects, have had a serious effect on the French game in two key aspects.

"Our game is less violent, yes. But maybe some fighting occasionally was not so bad.Now, we have a very clean game but also a very structured rugby. But the French are at their best when they are passing the ball and there is not a great structure.

"France lost more than any other country when the game turned professional. The spirit and pleasure we had when the ball was passed, has been lost. The French are good when they don't know where they are going, or what they are going to do. It was like Serge Blanco; nobody knew where he would be going on the field, not even himself."

France's most recognisable rugby man has never lost his fame, whatever he may have wished. Having abandoned life in Paris, he now lives quietly on the Mediterranean with his wife Sonia and two young sons, Jasper (3) and Kino-Jean (eight weeks) in a wooden property that resembles a tree house near a local golf course. He adores life on the Med, the sunshine, the peace and solitude. In his garden, bamboo grows, mimosa bushes sprout like weeds and he can pick lemons and figs.

So if you ask him if he is discontented, he looks bewildered, surprised. "Me? With my family and my life? Of course not."

But he does have serious concerns for the game he so adored. "I believe we have some great players today but the game is failing them, denying them because the rules are all wrong."

And the danger to rugby of the future is clear, he believes. "We have to be careful because if we lose the idea that the spirit of the game is the most important thing and should help form the rules, then we will lose everything."

Rives is aware of the suggested rule changes and welcomes such a debate. But he insists it is not solely the top level of the sport, professional rugby, which has problems that require weeding out and solving.

"Today, we are so strict in this new game that we tell 10-year-olds 'You cannot play rugby in this club because you are not good enough or not big enough'. At 10-years-old ? That is dreadful, crazy. These people who say such things to youngsters are killing the dream of rugby.

"Why should we kill the dreams of a 10-year-old just because he might not be a future Gareth Edwards or Barry John? To me, that is a crime."

Remember, he says, a vital truth. "If you kill the clown, you end the circus. Don't kill the dream and don't kill the clown in rugby. Today, we still need the clown in this game."

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