Pichot's Pumas miss out on fair-trade deal with England

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The Independent Online

Last weekend, 82,000 spectators watched the All Blacks stick 40 points on England in the first of this season's autumn Tests. What they did not see was the New Zealanders leave town with a seven-figure cut of the gate receipts. Tomorrow, a 75,000 crowd will welcome Argentina on to the old cabbage patch in south-west London for what many consider to be a far more significant contest. Once again, they will not witness any transfer of monies from the Rugby Football Union - for the very good reason that there will not be one. The South Americans, teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy, will leave with nothing.

The 15-man code has never been driven by notions of equality; indeed, the very idea of a redistribution of wealth is an anathema to the game's powerbrokers. But the argument in favour of a fair-trade deal for the best of the rest is stronger now than at any point in the history of the sport, and the Pumas are doing the most of the talking. Or rather, some of the Pumas. As ever with the Argentines, domestic politics is more confusing and exasperating than the international version.

"I'm not frightened to tell you there are some backward-looking people in Buenos Aires," said Agustin Pichot, the brilliant scrum-half who will lead the tourists tomorrow. "The players are 100 per cent convinced that the game needs to be professionalised, but our union will not move. They insist the game in Argentina stays amateur. It is why we play abroad, where organisation and structure mean something. We are accused of talking only of money, but professionalism means so much more than the amount players are paid.

"All the time, we are told the financial reality of Argentinian rugby means our game cannot be professionalised. This is an excuse for inaction. Eighteen months ago, money was made available by the International Rugby Board for the appointment of a director of rugby. Until five weeks ago, we still had no one in the job. Unless the concept of professionalism is understood and embraced, we will not make the best of ourselves as a rugby country. We want a fair chance, nothing more. We are tired of people feeling sorry for us, of them patting us on the back and saying, 'Congratulations on your brave performance'."

Eleven months ago, Pichot and his fellow senior internationals took the painful decision to withdraw their labour in protest at the administration of the game in Argentina. It was a moment of considerable poignancy, especially when set alongside the England players' strike during the build-up to their meeting with the Pumas at Twickenham in 2000 - a dispute wholly driven by the pursuit of more money. "Saying 'no' to my country was the hardest thing I've done in my life, but there was no choice," the scrum-half explained. "I'd never considered striking as a good way to solve anything, but we'd tried everything else."

Whatever truce now exists between the players and their union - Pichot and company returned to active duty in good time for the two summer Tests against Wales, both of which the Pumas won while making a financial loss on the series, and the one-off game with New Zealand, whom they were within a score of beating - is fragile. "Our relationship is very bad," the captain confirmed.

Yet who would place significant sums of money against the tourists winning at Twickenham for the first time? Despite injuries to the likes of Ignacio Corleto, Rodrigo Roncero, Rimas Alvarez Kairelis and Martin Durand, they will punch their considerable weight tomorrow, especially with the outstanding Felipe Contepomi in his optimum position of stand-off. Pichot believes his half-back partner ranks alongside Dan Carter of New Zealand as the best in the world.

"We haven't played since June, our preparation has been brief, yet we're attempting to beat the world champions at their place," said Les Cusworth, the former Leicester and England outside-half who accepted the rugby director's job in Buenos Aires last month. "This is fairy-tale stuff, frankly. There again, this is a special group of players who work miracles for each other. I'll be very interested to see the way this one goes."

Cusworth, who coached England under Jack Rowell in the mid-1990s, knows the red-rose game inside out and has had a valuable tactical input ahead of this fixture, despite having been in his new job for the proverbial five minutes. He does not believe that the Puma players will win the professionalism debate any time soon - "The amateur club game is all-powerful in Argentina, and those clubs are not of a mind to throw away 120 years of history," he said - but he is of the opinion that the Test team are strong enough to win more rugby matches than they lose.

"We're blessed with a fantastic group of players - bright, smart, ambitious, dedicated people from top to bottom. The question is this: how does the rugby world see itself 20 years from now? Do we want to see the likes of Argentina moving ahead and challenging the best on a regular basis, or are we happy to stagnate? If we're serious about growth, as we must surely be, we need to answer some difficult questions about how best it can be achieved. This is not simply a question for the IRB, but for individual unions." Like England? "Yes, like England."

Argentina team

(v England, Twickenham, tomorrow 2.30; Sky Sports 2): J-M Hernandez (Stade Français); J Nunez Piossek (Bayonne), M Avramovic (Worcester), G Tiesi (London Irish), P Gomez Cora (Lomas Athletic); F Contepomi (Leinster), A Pichot (Stade Français, capt); M Ayerza (Leicester), M Ledesma (Clermont), O Hasan (Toulouse), I Fernandez-Lobbe (Sale), P Albacete (Pau), J Fernandez-Lobbe (Sale), J Leguizamon (London Irish), G Longo (Clermont). Replacements: A Vernet (Alumni), M Scelzo (Clermont), E Lozada (CASI), M Schusterman (Leeds), N Fernandez-Miranda (Hindu), F Todeschini (Montpellier), H Agulla (Hindu).

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