Jean-Pierre Rives speaks to Jeff Powell about risks and renaissance

The most colourful character in rugby! With his flaxen mane, JEAN-PIERRE RIVES was one of the world’s greatest players – now he’s a renowned artist and speaks to JEFF POWELL about risks, revelry and renaissance

  • Jean-Pierre Rives has transitioned from rugby legend to a renowned artist 
  • He expects the team he once captained to glory to complete a renaissance 
  • Rives has also tipped England to reach the semi-finals despite their woes 
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

The greatest flanker in history is at work on the painting which is to light up the giant World Cup screens when his easel begins toppling over on the uneven ground outside his studio.

‘Phoo,’ says Jean-Pierre Rives. ‘Everything in France is wobbling now. Except l’equipe.’

This rugby legend who has transitioned into one of the world’s most renowned artists and sculptors expects the team he captained to glory to complete a renaissance of their beautiful game in the coming weeks.

‘France is Le Challenger,’ he says with that gallic flourish. Not as a contender but as the most formidable obstacle to all others. ‘The spirit of le rugby is returning,’ he says. ‘The expression, the imagination, the elan the world loves.’

Rives envisages France flowing through the World Cup, the way his long blond hair used to stream behind him as he weaved his way through the land of sporting giants. Images of that flaxen mane – for which he was nicknamed Casque d’Or (Golden Helmet) – and of shirts splattered with his blood shed in battle adorn the French anthology.

Jean-Pierre Rives, the greatest flanker in history, has swapped rugby for art and sculpting

Speaking to Mail Sport’s Jeff Powell (left), Rives has discussed France’s World Cup hopes

As do tales of how this comparatively diminutive figure ‘came to rugby by accidentally smashing through a plate glass door at school without harm to myself’. Of how before a match against England at the start of his career ‘I was told that if I could keep tackling that great man Andrew Ripley I would play 10 years for France and I did’.

In so doing he amassed 59 caps, a then-world-record 34 of them as captain. Achieved not only by heart, his powers of leadership and infectious personality but also by his enchantment with the freedom with which great teams can release talent. Such as his own, he leaves us to say.

Rives despairs of the domination of strength and sheer force and says: ‘Physicality is only one element. Spirituality is another. If it was only physical I would have played nothing because I was always told I was too small. But there is a mystique about this game at its finest. Something intangible which finds invention in the soul.’

As it was with him. As he senses in this French team. As is evident now in his art. 

The door to life after rugby was opened when Albert Feraud, the father of modernist French sculpture, invited him to his studio in Paris. ‘In my heart I have never left,’ he says.

I visited the two of them there years ago and saw them welding huge shapes from sheets of metal. Feraud’s works already stood in galleries. So now do Rives’ in company with his canvasses. Most of his paintings have been abstract impressionism. Now it is cubism as with the World Cup emblem which has at least one of the colours of all the competing nations.

His oval ball bete noire is the complex rules ‘which smother rugby’. 

Rives says: ‘Stop the blocking of the ball when it is on the ground by players being allowed to reach for it as long as their feet are on the ground.

Rives (pictured splattered with his blood) envisages France flowing through the World Cup 

The French side will kickstart their campaign on home turf against New Zealand on Friday

‘This kills the ball and rugby. The ball is life and this kills the freedom to play. Worse, by making it impossible for the ball to be released it can give the reward of three points by penalty to the blockers. Some of them are selected only because all they can do is this spoiling. Phoo.’

That dismissive expression comes in response, also, to the furore around Owen Farrell’s ban. 

‘So he hit the shoulder of his opponent with his shoulder. So? This was not high. Not a hit to the head. Not dangerous. In my days this was normal. Nothing. This is rugby, not football. I like this player. He is important. Suspend him? Phoo.’

The mischievous smile rarely leaves him down here where the Alpes-Maritimes meet the Mediterranean and where he lives with his wife Sonia and sons Jasper, 18, and Kino-Jean, 16. 

There is a golf club beyond the fence where Jasper is the course record holder, with a 61, and the men’s champion with a four handicap and the dream of the pro tour. Sonia is the ladies champion. Jean-Pierre used to play regularly but ‘now I leave the golf to them’.

And the rugby to Kino-Jean who is starring in the back row for the local Grimaud team. Together they walk to the beach for their morning swim. ‘Every day,’ he says, ‘If only for two minutes on very cold days in winter.’

This, at 70, is a left-over from his training regime. Such was the dedication that he has never drunk alcohol. Well, once. 

‘We were in London to play England and the night before the match we were invited to a banquet by the Bishop of Westminster. I was sitting next to him and when I kept declining a drink he said that surely I would join him for a port at the end.

‘How could I refuse a bishop? He gave me three. I felt terrible. At the start of the match I was sick on the pitch. Never again.’

Rives lives near the Mediterranean with his wife Sonia and sons Jasper, 18, and Kino-Jean, 16

Not even when he led France to their first victory over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil on Bastille Day, 1979. ‘That was the great moment of my career,’ he says. ‘Bigger than the Grand Slams. Yet I felt more embarrassed than happy because they deserved to win. We had stolen the match from them. Yet their behaviour was wonderful. They congratulated us. Their captain Graham Mourie was amazing, saying well done to us. Smiling. He invited me to go fishing with him the next day. That is the way rugby should be.’

Not that he can say the same about today’s rugby. ‘Yes, organisation is needed. But not to the extent that it takes place in a square with every move pre-planned. It is the players, not the coaches, who must decide how to play. Choose to take risk. To keep passing the ball. Rugby is not American football.

‘Perhaps the greatest player is Serge Blanco. Magnifique. We used to organise to give him the ball, then go for a beer or a coffee while he did whatever he wanted! He took chances. They usually worked and we won. If they didn’t, we lost. C’est la vie.

‘It was another life. We were given 10 francs for our travel. Not enough. The accommodation and main meals were paid but not our hotel extras. Not drinks, coffees or snacks. We played for love. Now so much is about money. Why do the big countries play against each other to prepare for meeting the same opponents in the World Cup? Nonsense. They play those nothing games for money. Phoo.

‘It is cuckoo that France are playing New Zealand in the opening match. Why draw two potential finalists against each other before the final even though the All Blacks seem to be crumbling a little?’

Not that this raises doubts about France’s hopes: ‘To win a World Cup you need more than two exceptional players. We have at least three with that ability to do the unexpected. It is sad for (Romain) Ntamack that he is injured but it may prove to be better to have (Matthieu) Jalibert in his place at fly-half. He takes more risks. Antoine Dupont will be the star of the World Cup. (Damian) Penaud is dangerous on the wing.’

He has tipped talisman Antoine Dupont to steal the show at the upcoming tournament

A favoured French XV would do well to draw upon the powerful inspiration of Rives’ energy

Nor does he discount England from going ‘as far as the semi-final’ despite the turmoil. ‘You have some excellent players,’ Rives says. ‘But whatever you may think of Eddie Jones it is not right to have a foreigner as coach. That brought your problems. The coach has to come from your own culture. Now the team can be given the freedom to express their true nature.’

Rives will be watching on TV. ‘I don’t see so well these days,’ he explains. ‘From the stands the game is small. Also I take more sense of the match from the close-ups of the players’ faces. Their emotions. The gritting of teeth or the droop of the head.’

Despite the charms of southern France that TV is in his villa in Ibiza where he likes to spend more time. ‘Life in Spain is more free than in France,’ he says. ‘Here this government of this little president imposes on how we live. Phoo.’

He may be tempted back to Paris to see his painting on the giant screen at the final. ‘That is an honour,’ says this holder of France’s highest decoration, the Legion d’Honneur.

The blond locks are grey now and a trifle wispy but the mind and the energy are still forces of nature. What more powerful inspiration could the players of a renaissant French XV draw upon than Jean-Pierre Rives? Vive Le Challenger.

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