How Rugby Became A Boring Game Of Terminator Trench Warfare

The world of rugby is not what it used to be. Artists gave way to men built like tanks, and the 2015 World Cup, kicking off in England, will take the Robocop scrum to a new low.

France-Scotland grind it out at the Six Nations
France-Scotland grind it out at the Six Nations
Serge Raffy

LONDON â€" 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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!