The Pumas: Pichot full of pampas passion

Argentinian No 9 fears rugby is selling its soul but he has the safe hands to carry forward game's traditional values
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The Independent Online

He comes from the land of the pampas, but the similarities to France's most famous rugby son are irresistible. Agustin Pichot, the captain of Argentina for tonight's World Cup semi-final against South Africa, and the former French skipper Jean-Pierre Rives are kindred souls, men who share an undying romantic passion for their sport.

As Rives has said, when rugby was created, there were friends and a ball. Take away the ball but you still have the friends.

What should we see in these romanticists, men who adored rugby's liberal era? What relevance have their views in this brash new world, in which rugby football has embraced professionalism? Pichot puts his case eloquently. He accepts he has been one of the fortunate few able to earn a handsome living from his sport. And he remains a pragmatist, aware that clocks cannot be turned back.

He raises important issues that go to the heart of where this game might be in a decade's time."Rugby is at a big crossroads, a changing point. It can go anywhere. Rugby football is built, like society, with the theoretics of how to live and the economical part that comes with it. You can have a fantasy life and dream of things that you would love but do not touch. On the other hand, how do you construct those dreams? Rugby has the same challenge. Where does it go, how closely does it wish to retain some element of those dreams?

"Rugby in the last five years in England, we know. It is a microcosm of the game that we know by heart. [Francis] Baron [the RFU chief executive] against the clubs, clubs against the Union, Union against the players, the players against all kinds of things, like the media. France has been exactly the same. But in that time, rugby has become more focused on the means than the end. It has become the means: how we carry on economically, how we sell more tickets. We have forgotten a little bit of what rugby is about.

"It is not about the thousands of pounds in a player's pocket or the numbers that fill a stadium. It is about the passion you share when playing, it's about the pleasure you have together. We have to think about this, all of us. It is not just England or France to whom this applies."

Is this the future we confront? Pichot would like to think not. "We are obsessed with advertising campaigns, keeping the press out of reach. Remembering that rugby is first of all a game that should be played with passion and pride has been a victim of this process. We should use the rugby jersey not for how much money we can make but to remember we represent other people, maybe a nation."

Is that not a romantic lament of the loss of values common to society and rugby? He smiles. "Perhaps. But our involvement in this game should not be about, 'I will live well and have three cars if I play rugby'. That should not be the thinking, because that is not rugby. I get paid to play, so it is a contradiction to express these views perhaps. I can tell you that I never needed money to play this game, but that won't make sense. But I think it is very necessary to remind rugby of what it could lose."

So the likely denouement? "f we don't really put things in order towards values, we are going to lose this game. It will become like soccer. This World Cup is the end of rugby as we knew it.

"We are the guys that probablyshould be running the show in terms of our thinking," he says. "Not the business but the philosophy. We should be the ambassadors of the sport." Surely there has to be a place for those who carry forward the sport's much admired, traditional values. They could not be in safer hands than the Pumas' erudite No 9.

Watch Argentina take on South Africa this evening on ITV1, kick-off 8pm