Two things became clear at England's biggest rugby club yesterday as Marcelo Loffreda, who navigated Argentina to a ground-breaking podium finish at the World Cup last month, was formally introduced as the new head coach of Leicester. Firstly, the Tigers intend to cement their position at the top end of the Premiership by transforming Welford Road, their spiritual home, into a 30,000 venue so futuristic in design that it will make the planned Olympic Stadium look like a skittle alley. Secondly, and perhaps more excitingly, the extraordinary Pumas outside-half Juan Martin Hernandez will surface in the East Midlands at some point in the near future.
Hernandez has 18 months left on his contract with Stade Français, the Parisian club who start this season's Heineken Cup as favourites, but Leicester fancy their chances of landing their man in time for the start of the 2008-09 campaign. Peter Tom, the chairman, was not prepared to talk in detail on the subject – "While we're always being associated with world-class players, there have been no discussions with Hernandez as far as I'm aware," he said – but neither he nor Loffreda denied their high level of interest in making the signing at the first opportunity.
What was less transparent, sadly, was the future of the wonderful Puma side Loffreda spent eight years constructing and has now left behind. Despite their position as the third best team on the planet they still have no place in either of the major annual international tournaments – the Six Nations Championship in Europe or the Tri-Nations in the southern hemisphere. With the domestic game in Argentina still resolutely amateur and showing no sign of professionalising itself, the former Pumas coach was somewhat less than optimistic about the side's long-term prospects.
"The World Cup was a good expression of Argentine rugby," Loffreda said. "The ball is now in the court of the officials at our home union, who must try to operate at the same level as the players who have been representing the country in asking for, or demanding, more international participation. What must happen if we are to remain as competitive as we are at the moment? That is a very difficult question. Because our professional players are based in Europe, we would fit better in the Six Nations.
"However, it would be impractical to base ourselves away from home for a long period of time. We need to play in Argentina. But then, there is no money in rugby in Argentina, so we come back to the beginning. The issue is always a circular one."
Loffreda, a father of five who was born in Buenos Aires 48 years ago and made 44 international appearances as a centre – 16 of them as captain – before beginning his coaching career at the San Isidro club, will not take charge of his new team for this weekend's Heineken Cup opener against Leinster in Dublin.
"It would be disrespectful of me to come here and put forward my demands immediately," he said. "I intend to do things slowly, so for this game I will restrict myself to a few comments and a little advice. It will be no more than that. The people here have done a good job over the opening weeks of the season and I acknowledge their work. To be successful, it is not enough for the players to be a team. The staff must be a team also."
Was the parting with his countrymen after their play-off victory over France in Paris difficult? "It was very emotional, very sad," he said, "but no one is indispensable."
And the reception in Buenos Aires, where, unprecedentedly, major football matches had been rescheduled to avoid clashing with the Pumas' big games in France?
"It was incredible. It was the same as in London when England won the World Cup in 2003. Some of the football managers asked to meet me because they couldn't understand why their players didn't show the same passion on the field as the rugby men. Unfortunately, the meeting never took place. I didn't have the time. And anyway, rugby is a real contact sport. It is different from football."
In South Africa, the Sports Minister, Makhenkesi Stofile, has announced an end to racial quotas across all sports – removing one of the principal factors behind the exit of the Springboks' World Cup-winning coach, Jake White.
"Quotas are out," Stofile said. "We are not going to decide who must be on the team. All we are saying is expose everybody, give them an opportunity."
Stofile had previously been a staunch defender of quotas, but admitted yesterday that the experiment had failed.
"Quotas were used only for window dressing for international consumption," he said. "We must kill the myth that black people cannot play certain sporting codes because they are black. Let us put our resources into the development of talent."Reuse content