Most sport administrators operate in the shadows, concluding deals behind closed doors, out of the public eye, building alliances, playing politics. Not so Argentine Agustin Pichot, who has shaken the rugby world from its slumbers, even before he officially steps into the post of World Rugby’s vice-chairman on Wednesday, by voicing what most people were already thinking… the three-year residency rule is a farce.
If his comments caused a stramash he doesn’t care. When setting up this interview, I suggested via e-mail that World Rugby might want to shut him up but Pichot replies “Jajaja,” (translation “Hahaha”) before adding, “I am as free as you can imagine” and he is true to his word.
“I think it’s something we can change,” Pichot insists from his home in Argentina. “Even if it [the three-year rule] makes things better on a short-term basis, Australia or England or Scotland or Argentina import players to make a better team, because it is against your country. I think it is a very big mistake.
“I strongly believe that if a player decides to play for a different country he needs to spend at least five years embracing that country, at least five years. Because at the end of the day he is pulling on a shirt and representing that country. Whether it is Argentina or Scotland, it means a lot for that country and I think we are under-estimating the value of the international game.
“For me it’s an international statement, that is how I see it, the international game, wearing your shirt with pride, so it has to be more than just coming for three years to make money. To play for a country because it is better commercially, it’s wrong, it’s entirely wrong.
“It will be a very good example of how people work towards the outcome that they want. In Argentina we call it la caretta, we take the mask off to show the true face. I would like to see who votes against it and who votes with it. That’s what it is about, we are reinforcing the national representation for international teams so I don’t think anyone will argue about it.”
The former Pumas’ scrum-half is smart, opinionated and as lively off the field as he was on it; talking at ten to the dozen in any one of the three languages in which he is fluent, Spanish, England or French.
He was the driving force that transformed Argentina from a backwater of the game, a tier-two nation who played perhaps four or five Tests per year, into the powerhouse of international rugby that finished third in RWC07 and now, with a seat on Sanzar, is one of the movers and shakers with its very own Super Rugby franchise.
Perhaps because Argentine domestic rugby was almost entirely amateur until this season, they uphold the traditions of the game a little better than most.
“At World Rugby we are not here to sit in the Royal Box,” says Pichot, “not to patronise players, but to explain to them that there is a bigger picture at stake. They are role models on the rugby field so the system cannot allow that to happen; don’t ask for cards to other players, don’t take cheap shots, maintain discipline, we have to be very strict on things rugby has to defend, respect for the referee.
“I think it was brilliant what happened in the World Cup. The Scotland captain (Greig Laidlaw) said afterwards that the referee had made a mistake. There were no hard feelings. We don’t need to dramatise these things, the press will do that.”
Pichot insists that World Rugby is close to hammering out an agreement with all the interested parties on a global season although by this he simply means to end the bickering on where the Test windows start/stop in the calendar rather than anything more radical like synchronising the northern and southern halves of the globe.
What it should offer is better player protection. Pichot points out that the Jaguares currently get December, January and half of February off rugby which is the sort of break that the Top 14 players can only dream off. Is the problem a European one?
“Yes,” Pichot shoots back, “because the clubs want their own profitable calendar and I understand that. But we have to work together to get a better result without hammering the players for so many weeks, that is the challenge.”
While admitting that the next big battle looming is between clubs and countries, the diplomat in Pichot insists it doesn’t have to be a war. He says that everyone should agree that international rugby is at the top of the pyramid but the most ambitious club owners may not see it quite the same way, with one eye on soccer and the dominant position the club game enjoys in that sport, at least outside of a World Cup year.
Where Pichot has fewer answers is the vexed question of the tier-two countries in Europe and where they might aspire to play because he has painful, personnel experience of applying for membership of the exclusive Six Nations’ club.
“I had a meeting with the Six Nations board in November, 2007 and it lasted 30 seconds,” Pichot recalls. “I think Argentina and the Six Nations would have been a very interesting expansion but they couldn’t do it because of the [English/French] clubs [who were against expanding the Test window].”
“I still think that Georgia and Romania have to ask questions about where they have space to compete? Is there going to another Six Nations? Is there going to be the opportunity to play in the Celtic League, the Top 14 or the Premiership? Will they go in the next ten years and play Super Rugby? You want to expand the game but if you don’t play regularly against teams with higher levels you will never improve.
“There has to be some creativity towards what we do with Georgia and Romania, what we do with Namibia, what we do with the USA and Canada, Tonga and Fiji. Do we just remember them when we play the World Cup and say how great they are for turning up and for years in between they get one or two Tests? That is not good enough, we need a competitive Fiji and a competitive Georgia in a good [annual] competition because otherwise we will get the same old faces in the World Cup quarter and semi-finals.”
The little Argentine is just one man railing against vested interest so embedded it is almost fossilised but with Pichot’s boundless energy and optimism brought to bear almost everything, beyond the precious ethos of rugby itself, will be up for grabs.