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Whilst all sporting events are currently cancelled the opportunity has arisen to look back at some of the all-time favourite players, rivalries and occasions – and where better to start than the famous battle of rugby players Jean-Pierre Rives and Peter Winterbottom in the early 80s?
It’s practically impossible to fathom how much the game has changed over the past thirty years and beyond. This is a time when international rugby was unprofessional, when players used to train a few times a week for an hour or so before retiring to the bar for a well-deserved pint, and before the term ‘diet’ even existed, let alone isotonic drinks and high protein meals. The main memory that sticks out for many is the ill-fitting, heavy shirts that one unlucky player had to take home to wash – an impossible comparison to today.
Undoubtedly, the two players that stand out even now are an Englishman and a Frenchman. Both famously donning slick, blond locks and arguably two of the best flank forwards to ever play the game, Rives and Winterbottom epitomised everything positive about the game of rugby – their passion, determination and sheer commitment to succeed was obvious and they always played with their heart on their sleeve. It is no coincidence that the achievements for both men continue today; receiving the French National Order of Merit and Hall of Fame status respectively.
Two of the very first rugby players whose reputation superseded the very sport they played, it may not be fair to decide who the better rugby player was – instead it is more appropriate to celebrate their rivalry and their style of play, as well as what they contributed to the sport of Rugby Union as a whole.
Rives, nicknamed Casque d’Or – or Golden Helmet – captained France a (then) record 34 times and made up the legendary ‘Jean’ back row alongside Jean-Claude Skrela and Jean Pierre Bastiat. The man was famously unpredictable and became notorious for his ability to pop up in positions completely unexpected of him. To him, there was no such thing as a lost cause and his commitment to his team is depicted in what is his most well-known incident in 1983 as he is photographed covered in blood in their 16-9 win against Wales.
Perhaps something less known about Rives is his furore into the art world since his retirement in 1984. So much so in fact, that his sculptures are on display all over Europe - Barcelona, Chantily and Milan to name but a few - as well as internationally over the Atlantic in New York.
The fact that Rives’ try count only hits 5 in his 59 matches shows testament to his quality elsewhere on the pitch. Whilst many are remembered for individual efforts and pitch-long try finishes, Rives is remembered for his style and attitude, and sits fondly in the mind of rugby fans all over. In the words of Huw Baines, “A blood-stained hero, Rives remains an iconic presence to fans the world over.”
Winterbottom on the other hand, whilst not as nimble as his French rival, more than made up for this with his renowned hard hits in the tackle and his fantastic work ethic. It was this same work ethic that allowed him to play all over the world. Whilst a large focus of the English publics sporting attention centred around football and cricket, the southern hemisphere had embraced the sport of Rugby Union and were setting the standards of professional play.
It was here that Winterbottom claimed international acclaim, regularly playing in New Zealand for Hawke’s Bay and having three separate stints in South Africa. After settling back in England and playing for Harlequins, Winterbottom was viewed as the shining light on the ’93 Lions tour to New Zealand, particularly for his performance in the sole victory of the tour – a convincing 20-7 win.
Whilst Winterbottom and Rives clashed on several occasions, the one matchup between the two that lasts long in the memory is the ‘82 Five Nations which saw England claim a convincing 27-15 victory. With Rives’ notoriously flamboyant and unpredictable, France squad pitted against Winterbottom’s England who would go on to win miss out on the title by a single point. The game was high stakes and predictably fiery...
After Winterbottom left his mark on his opposite number with a big hit at the back of a lineout that left Rives requiring treatment for several minutes, he memorably responded with a simple wink and smile. Twenty minutes later the French pack responded with aggression of their own as Winterbottom receiving his comeuppance – if the tone hadn’t been set already, it had now.
It was the start of a fiery rivalry between the two teams that culminated in one of the most famous Rugby Union matches in history – the 1991 World Cup Quarter Final. Whilst Rives had long retired, Winterbottom partook in a match that, almost 30 years on, lives on as one of the most violent on record – let alone in a World Cup. In a match where punches were thrown on both sides, the crowd grew heavily involved and the atmosphere described as “gladiatorial” by England’s Will Carling, Winterbottom and co. emerged victorious with a 19-10 victory over their channel neighbours and the game is still remembered today… if not particularly for rugby reasons!
It truly is impossible to pick between these two wonderful flankers. Both displayed tremendous moments on and off the pitch and will be remembered fondly all over the world. As the game continues to develop, and the role of the flanker changes, it’s possible to argue that not only were Winterbottom and Rives the best of their generation, but the best hard-hitting flankers to play the game.
Here’s to two fantastic players as well as the hope that our wonderful game returns in the near future.