Rugby Union: Threat to Pichot's keep-ball

Richmond's Argentine scrum-half and philosopher struggles to keep alive the fire inside.

AGUSTIN PICHOT'S two-year contract with Richmond expires at the end of the season and he's not sure whether to renew it. It has nothing to do with money or the club but by next May the little Argentine scrum- half might decide that the passion play is over.

"I have given so much to rugby," he said. "And I can't say I'm going to carry on because if I don't have this passion I won't play. I don't know about the fire inside. I want to play the best rugby I can play and then maybe do other things."

Pichot's passion is at present igniting Richmond and he may have a similar effect on Argentina in the World Cup next year. The London club did not so much sign a scrum-half as a philosopher. You won't find him in the Rat and Firkin (he doesn't drink) but you will find him listening to the London Symphony Orchestra. Having studied law and marketing, he has just completed a business degree at Brunel University.

"He's a very intense guy who tends to get what he wants in life," said John Kingston, the Richmond coach. "He nearly left us last season but he wanted to prove himself and show everybody what he's capable of. He's a very proud man."

One of the reasons Pichot rejected offers from Leicester and Newcastle is that, living in Twickenham, he is close to London. "I first came here when I was 13 on a family holiday and I loved it. I have always admired Europe from the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution. Culturally, it's very important and I love going to the Barbican and the South Bank. Rugby allows me to express myself but there are other things in life." The prospect of the mountainous Craig Quinnell, one of the players who has befriended Pichot, squeezing himself into the Old Vic to watch Amadeus, doesn't bear thinking about.

Pichot's father and grand- father played first-class rugby in Buenos Aires for San Isidro, a club Agustin joined when he was four. He attended St Andrews School, a Scottish establishment founded after the Second World War. "They played rugby and I had a very good education. Thank God. Knowing English makes things so much better." At San Isidro, his elder brother Enrique also played scrum- half. "When I was 17," Agustin said, "he moved to fly-half so I could play in the first team. He said I was better than him. I owe him everything. He's my hero, my idol."

Pichot's education has been broadened beyond the playing fields of the Premiership and the theatres of the West End. Kingston, a Cambridge University graduate, has seen to that. "He knows he's capable of behaving like a spoilt little boy and I rib him about it," Kingston said. "He's been very pampered in Argentina. He had a maid and somebody to clean his shoes so I treat him like muck at times. I tell him to put the kit away."

When Pichot (they call him "Peesh") joined in 1997 he was number two to the Welsh international Andy Moore, at 30 six years the Argentine's senior. "He was never going straight into the team," Kingston said. "Andy had been my Player of the Year and he and Adrian Davies had done a terrific job in getting us out of Division Two. In Argentina they couldn't understand why Peesh was on the bench. They think the world of him over there. It's a pride thing. He constantly worries but once he realised it was going to happen in five months rather than five minutes he relaxed. When he knew he had the park to himself he suddenly lifted his game. He needs to be loved, he really does, otherwise he tends to get upset about things. He's a bloody good scrum-half for somebody who can't pass and can't kick. When I tell him to kick he says 'I never kick the ball. I keep it'."

Pichot got his break at the tail end of the season when Moore broke a thumb and Richmond reeled off five successive victories. After helping Argentina - "We are the only country in the world that doesn't get paid" - qualify for the World Cup, he reappeared for the first game of the season against Newcastle at the Madejski Stadium and inspired one of the tries of the season. He rejoins Argentina next month for matches against Italy, France and Wales. "The Welshmen in the club say they're going to eat me. If they catch me I'm dead."

It's a big if. Pichot has looked as lively as an electric eel this season. "When I arrived I'd won 14 caps but I didn't realise the clubs were so professional, the fitness so high. It's like playing with an international side so each weekend for me is like a Test match."

Today he will test himself against Andy Gomarsall, not to mention Lawrence Dallaglio, when Richmond play Wasps at Loftus Road. With Adrian Davies injured (Richmond have just signed Richard Butland from Bath) Pichot will partner Earl Va'a, a Western Samoan who also plays it off the cuff. "With defences so tight I'm allowed to try something different," Pichot said. "There should be more of the individual."

"The backs," Kingston said, "should be running off the number 10 not number nine but Pichot has searing pace off the mark which people are terrified of. He's difficult to work with because you're not sure what he's going to do but we have to find a system that works around him."

Next week Pichot will attend a reception in London hosted by the Argentine President Carlos Menem. In 1996 Menem presented him with an award as Argentina's Player of the Year. "This will be the first visit to Britain by an Argentine president since the Falklands War," Pichot said. "That was very sad for both countries and so unnecessary. I miss my country and my family but I'd miss them a lot more if I didn't feel so comfortable here."

Kingston says of Pichot: "He worries a lot about what people think of him." This is what Kingston, who clearly loves him to bits, really thinks about him: "We have got a fantastic scrum-half, one of the best three in the world."

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