LONDON — It was last century, 20 or more years ago. A time when the oval ball merrily made the rounds, from hand to hand. Rugby, back then, was a fête. There were still some smaller, even slender players in this sport of close combat. These skinny wizards practiced the art of dodging, wrong-footing their opponents, or avoiding them with the timely application of that technique that includes successive arabesques, which, deep in southwestern France, they called “the art of biscouette.”
The featherweight artists went by names like Richard Astre, Jo Maso, Didier Codorniou, Jean Trillo, Jack Cantoni, Gareth Edwards or Andy Irvine. They lit up the Five Nations Championship with sudden stampedes, radiant improvisations, magical passes.
Today, their successors sweat it out in weights rooms, stuff themselves with vitamins, pump iron to meet the modern game standards. Which standards? Physical confrontation, frontal, deliberate impacts, as a means of massive destruction of the opponent. To the point of exhaustion.
It's a sad statement that more and more matches look like a game of trench warfare between modern and ponderous gladiators who have but one obsession: keeping possession no matter what. To win, you have to bury the ball deep in a pile of muscles. Make it disappear. Meaning you need big arms, Terminator biceps, so the leather ball never slips away.
All the specialists agree: Rugby is now played solely with the upper body, the arms and torso. To those who don't have a Robocop-like thorax, stick to marbles. And what do we end up with? More and more stereotyped games, devoid of inspiration, blocked by strategies that paralyze the players.
An image illustrates this painful statement: Apart for the New Zealanders and the Scots, the notion of deep, offensive play no longer exists. The teams are almost always face to face, stacked in, stuck on desperately straight and parallel lines.
The contrast is terrible: depth on one side, flattening out on the other. Produndity of the soul versus imposed platitude and boredom. Will this World Cup, on the shores of the River Thames, escape this bleak destiny? Will a handful of geniuses spared from the disastrous new status quo have the good idea of proving us wrong? We're not asking them to dance on a wire or perform any circus tricks. But we wait impatiently for the new generation to steer clear of the deadening trap of sport-by-bodybuilding. For the game. For the soul of rugby, may they again take their play deeper.