Rugby World Cup: Amateurs seek to raise profile back home

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The Independent Online
SPAIN ARRIVED in Edinburgh yesterday clearly proud at having qualified for the Rugby World Cup finals for the first time in four attempt despite the strictly amateur nature and low profile of the sport in their country.

They are determined to consolidate their place in the second tier of European rugby union and build on the huge exposure that the competition will give them back home, particularly on television.

Their first priority will be to beat Uruguay on Saturday at Netherdale and achieve respectable scores against Scotland and South Africa.

Spain will be captained by Steve Tuineau, born in Tonga but brought up in New Zealand where he went to school and learned his rugby.

Tuineau, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week, moved to Auckland and played for the Ponsonby before being persuaded to join Cornella, a small second division club in Barcelona in 1993.

He first represented the Spanish national team in 1996 and is now with another Barcelona club, Sant Boi, who have won the national championship twice in the last three years.

"Perhaps because of the influence of our near-neighbours France, we like to think we have flair, are good movers of the ball and can create something from nothing," says Tuineau.

Recognising the massive task facing his pack when they face South Africa, the holders, and Scotland, the Five Nations' champions he said: "We've not too much height."

Spain lost 20-3 to Uruguay when the two teams met in Italy at the end of last month but that was their third of three matches in six days which had also just returned from playing Japan in Japan (where they lost 30- 9).

Close defeats in Italy by Fiji (29-20) and Italy (42-16) have also encouraged them sufficiently to be optimistic of cutting the margin against Scotland who beat them 85-3 in the qualifying competition last December.

Agustin Pichot is one of the more fortunate members of the Argentinian World Cup squad. The 25-year-old scrum-half earns a tidy living from rugby, first at Richmond, now with Bristol. Most of his team-mates are not so lucky.

When the Pumas open the fifth World Cup against the hosts Wales on 1 October, they will turn out a collection of part-time players who struggle to make a sporting impression in their homeland.

In a country where soccer is the only game that matters, the 15-man code registers barely a blip on the interest scale.

"Rugby is not a big sport in Argentina, so competitions like the World Cup are hugely important to us," Pichot said. "Not only does it help raise the profile of the sport but it allows our best players the chance to prove themselves on a wider scale.

"We are all ambitious and want to play at the highest level we can. If you can put in a few good performances, it may attract interest from countries where rugby is played professionally.

"In Argentina, we are all amateurs and that is not going to change in the foreseeable future, so the only way individuals can really improve is by moving away."

Of the team which started the recent 31-22 victory over Scotland, five members earn their living outside South America, including the Saracens prop Roberto Grau and Eduardo Simone, who has been joined by Pichot at Bristol.

That result dispelled the myth that Argentina can only get results in their own country and produced an air of optimism among a squad coached by former the All Black coach Alex Wyllie.

Pichot believes Wyllie's arrival has helped raise the Pumas' performances to a level where a top-two group placing is a distinct possibility, although it is likely that the unpredictable Samoans will have to be overcome if that target is to be achieved.

Pichot identified the lock Alejandro Allub and the hooker Agustin Canalda as the Pumas who might catch the eye in the tournament.

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