Agustin Pichot: How the Pumas learnt to roar

Once he provided flair on the field. Now Agustin Pichot is driving Argentina's success behind the scenes, leading them into the Tri-Nations. He tells Chris Hewett about his dream to equal Australia's success
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It happened three long years ago and the rugby world has moved on a fair distance since, but Agustin Pichot still shakes his head mournfully at the memory of it. "You know, they really hated us," he says, recalling the day he led Argentina to a first, life-changing victory over England at Twickenham, only to discover that certain members of his own national union would have preferred another defeat. "They called us mercenaries because we were playing professional club rugby and turned their backs on us. After the game, they did not even come to the dressing room to congratulate us. It was a very low point. Maybe the lowest."

These people, among the last dinosaurs roaming the earth, were not quite so sniffy when, less than a year later, this same Pichot propelled the Pumas to an infinitely more startling success: a third-place finish at the 2007 World Cup in France – a campaign that featured two wonderful, wholly contrasting victories over the host nation and a decisive win against Ireland, who had rather fancied their chances of making the last four themselves. Even so, there remain one or two die-hard amateurs down Buenos Aires way who still have a voice. Professionalism is not out of the woods just yet.

But today, as the Pumas return to London for the first time since the 25-18 triumph that effectively cost Andy Robinson his job as England coach, Pichot believes Argentine rugby is about to enter a new epoch in which the hopes and dreams of players past and present stand a good chance of being fulfilled. Why does he believe this? Because he is one of those who has taken it upon himself to do the fulfilling. He may no longer play the game, but few people are in a better position to shape its future.

Pichot, now 35, is indisputably one of rugby's modern greats. He won more than 70 caps, and between 2000 and 2007 he was his country's captain more often than not. A fellow native of Buenos Aires, the exceptional loose-head prop Marcos Ayerza, recently credited him with having a "Napoleon complex", but while there are certain similarities in the size department – as a player, Pichot stood only 5ft 9ins in his rolled-down socks and seldom weighed much more than 13st – there is one striking difference: the Argentine never retreated from anywhere.

"The fight has been worth having," he says, referring to the long, exhausting battle for the soul of Puma rugby. "After the World Cup in 2007, many of those who had previously thought we were wrong to pursue the professional option by playing our club rugby in Europe conceded that we had been right after all. There is only a small minority in Argentina now who don't see it that way, although they still have the power to make themselves heard. But things have shifted recently. For the first time, we can see a road ahead that could take us to where we want to be."

That road leads to SANZAR-land – a land of milk and honey occupied by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There is an agreement in place that says Argentina will join these rugby powerhouses in their annual tournament from 2012, provided the Pumas can meet certain financial demands and put their strongest team on the field. Pichot is confident the money will be found: "The International Rugby Board wants to see us playing meaningful tournament rugby and have been very supportive with their investment," he says. And on the playing side? That, he accepts, is a little more complicated.

In the same way Pichot himself built careers for himself in English rugby, with Richmond and Bristol, and in France – in 2007, that year of years, he led the Parisian club Stade Français to the domestic title, thereby becoming the first foreigner to achieve the feat – most of the current front-line Argentine players earn their corn in the northern hemisphere. Of the 29-man squad now touring the British mainland, all but eight are based in Europe. The two injured titans of the Puma game, Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi, also play abroad. Come 2012, how many of these will abandon the pound and the euro and work for less at home?

"We are building something in Argentina, an organisation and a structure, that will move us forward," says Pichot, who now sits on a five-man board overseeing high-performance rugby from the Test team down to the Under-18s, taking in the country's extremely useful Sevens set-up as well. "Our aim is to have Argentine players playing their rugby in Argentina, and if, as we hope, we can negotiate a franchise that allows us to take part in the southern hemisphere's provincial tournament – something that would finally give us a proper fixture list covering the whole season – I believe most, if not all, players will return. We will say to them: 'No, we can't make you rich, but we can look after you. We can't give you Perrier, exactly, but we can offer you very good spring water instead. And anyway, you'll get to keep more of your money. Our taxes are not as high as they are in Europe.'

"The problem is that the franchise won't happen until 2015 at the earliest, so we're looking at a transitional period where we'll need some help and support from the big French and English clubs who have Argentine players on their books – players we will want access to at certain points in the year. I'm doing all the talking on this, and I think I've gone quite a way towards securing an agreement in France, where 80 per cent of our people are playing. I hope I can make the same progress in England."

Does he think, for instance, that the Leicester boss Richard Cockerill will play ball over the likes of Ayerza and the full-back Lucas Amorosino, both of whom are currently to be found at Welford Road? Pichot laughs. "I know Richard," he says, "and I understand him. The trick is to let him have his whinge. After that, he'll sit down and talk sense."

If Cockerill is no one's idea of a pushover, it is equally clear that Pichot is blessed with mighty powers of persuasion – that with the former captain driving the modernisation of Argentine rugby, anything is possible. He has moved back to Buenos Aires from Paris because the capital is "13 or 14 hours from everywhere in the world and I am one overnight flight from wherever I need to be to hold the next discussion". Rugby people listen to him because he is a pure rugby spirit, passionate in his pursuit of the Puma cause. He believes, quite genuinely, that within five or six years, Argentina could be on a par with Australia. "We're going for that, full throttle," he says. "Let's dream."

He does not regret for a second staring down the Puma establishment and taking a sledgehammer to the wall of amateurism erected around the sport in his home city. "When we finished third in the last World Cup and changed the status of rugby in our country, the people who had called us mercenaries changed their words," he says. "They started calling us 'professionals with the hearts of amateurs' instead. What bullshit. We were professionals, doing a professional job. However, it didn't mean we were interested only in money. Money was the by-product for us, not the purpose.

"This is where my socialist side comes out, because I believe sport is about more than dollars. If money was the only thing that mattered to a player, I would never have wanted him in my team. And if the current team took its inspiration only from cash, I wouldn't want to be a part of it."

And today? Can the Pumas summon the same inspiration that took them to victory three years ago? Can they possibly hurt England without Hernandez and Contepomi there in the think tank? "You know, this will sound like something from the amateur days, but I promise you it is completely professional," he replies. "I am a proud Argentine and I want to win, but this is a match that must be looked at from every angle. We have had very little preparation and some important people are missing, but if we can produce a performance that proves we have new, talented players climbing the ladder, it will be good for the future. And the future of our rugby is all that concerns me."

Agustin Pichot is a studio guest during Sky Sports' exclusively live and high-definition coverage of England v Argentina from 2pm today

My Other Life: Family business

"Rugby takes up all my time, even more now than when I was a player. When I retired earlier this year, I was expected to play my part in the family business, which has interests in real estate, farming, wine and oils. But my brother told me I should follow my dream, and my dream is for Argentine rugby to be the very best it can be. I could earn more money doing other things – I could have a nicer car, an easier life. But rugby gave me so much, I feel I owe it. A man can work for himself, but what I'm involved in is on an overwhelmingly bigger scale."

Pumas with bite: Three greats

Hugo Porta

At a time when the Pumas were mere strivers rather than achievers, Porta was regarded as the world's finest outside-half. He scored 593 points in 58 internationals between 1971 and 1990.

Diego Cash

The prototype of the Argentine scrummaging "guv'nor", the ferocious prop from the San Isidro club was regarded by England's most-capped player, Jason Leonard, as the best front-rower he ever faced.

Rolando Martin

Argentina's most-capped forward, Martin featured in three World Cups and so impressed England at the 1995 tournament that his direct opponent, Ben Clarke, talked him into joining Richmond.

Comments