Where next for Argentina? Window of opportunity for Pumas to tear into home nations every autumn

South Americans made irresistible case for place at the top table but IRB must find compromise with Six Nations and Tri-Nations not keen
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the game's perennial questions is how do you solve a problem like Argentina but, after the World Cup, solve it they must. No longer can the Pumas be offered the odd fixture here or there; after a wonderful performance in France, where they beat the hosts not once but twice, it is obvious spectators will pay good money to see the Argentinians, and that is a factor administrators cannot ignore.

It will be one of the issues raised at a three-day International Rugby Board conference next month when Woking – yes, little Woking – will be the scene of what could be a historic mission to find a solution to the so-called global season. It is, given the geography of the leading countries and the vested interests in the very different competitions, easier said than done. They would probably need more like three weeks than three days.

The IRB have been looking at the Tri-Nations as a potential home for itinerant Argen-tina – last week the players from the country now ranked No 3 in the world, after South Africa and New Zealand, were feted by their president in Buenos Aires – but it is understood the southern hemisphere three are not too keen on adding more Tests to the fixture list.

There has been talk of inviting Argentina to the Six Nations' Championship, but the same argument of overcrowding applies and England and France, for two, do not want to add to the calendar. If the Six Nations was expanded, with Argentina playing in Barcelona, there would be the possibility of promotion and relegation, but there is not a great deal of enthusiasm for that either.

A compromise, therefore, seems the most likely outcome, with the Pumas playing most, if not all, of the four home countries on a regular basis during the autumn "window". It could lead to the creation of a new tournament. Even that, how-ever, would not be straightforward. Most of Argentina's players compete in France and England, and there would be a reluctance to release them. Whatever, Argentina have an irresistible case for inclusion at the top table, and nor should the brilliant Fijians be forgotten.

At least the IRB have money to invest in the developing countries. The World Cup is expected to announce a profit of about £90 million, an increase of more than £25m on the 2003 version in Australia, which was considered a great success. The IRB are probably tempted to stage a World Cup every two years. Apart from the income derived, it would solve the problem of the global season at a stroke.

The Pumas have a strong community game but not the economy to pay for their best talent to stay at home. This is another global problem, highlighted earlier by the New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, who believes the financial clout of the top clubs in France and England, which attracts some of the best players in the world, will lead to the game in general paying a higher price.

"It would be a real worry if we had half the players in our Super 14 who weren't eligible for the All Blacks," he said. "If we could not develop players it would ruin our competitions. The loss of so much expertise from the southern hemisphere countries is one thing. It's also a concern for the countries these guys are going to, because more and more, particularly in France and England, there are fewer and fewer French and English players playing in their top competitions. So how are they going to develop an international side?

"If it continues the way it is, it's going to be to the detriment of international rugby everywhere. New Zealand's standards are going to decrease and the same will happen in South Africa, because so many of their top players are going to the UK and Europe. The standards in those countries will decrease too, because they're not going to develop their own players. It's a vicious circle."

Indeed it is, for what goes around comes around. What Henry omits to mention is New Zealand's reliance on, and recruitment from, the Pacific Islands. Jonah Lomu, the most devastating wing ever to play the game, is a Tongan. In any case, coaches are hardly in a position to criticise players, or the policy of financial inducement for moving abroad, when they do the same thing.

Brian Ashton was once the coach of Ireland, but the move did not really suit anybody. There is now speculation that his job as coach of England – his contract is up for renewal in December – is under threat, but that doesn't make any sense. After the 36-0 defeat by South Africa in the pool stage, some of the senior players, who will never wear the Red Rose jersey again, laid into Ashton over what they saw as his laissez-faire approach: play it as you see it sort of stuff. Had they spoken like that to Clive Woodward they would have been on the next plane home. "The shit really hit the fan," said one insider, "but it didn't seem to bother Ashton."

Ashton certainly made mistakes in selection. James Haskell should have been in front of Lawrence Dallaglio, Toby Flood in front of Andy Farrell and his choice of Phil Vickery as captain was a gamble, not because of a lack of leadership butsimply because the prop's body is so crocked he could barely make it to half-time.

Ashton, though, against all the odds, got England to mount an honourable defence of the Webb Ellis Cup, and but for the disallowed try by Mark Cueto in the final against South Africa, who knows? On balance, the Springboks deserved their victory. Nobody wins the Cup after losing a pool game, let alone36-0, but the final broughtthe role of the video official into the spotlight; his tendency not just to interrupt the flow of a game but to make a controversial call was highlighted.

There is something else in Ashton's favour. As the former head of the National Academy he is well placed to nurture the Rosebuds, some of whom are already gracing the Guinness Premiership and many of whom should be playing for England before the next World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. And the younger players will not give him a hard time.

While Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director who is conducting a review into England's campaign in France, was talking last week about devising a strategy for future World Cups, Ashton thought there was no such thing. Sitting next to Andrew at a Twickenham press conference, the coach said: "I don't think there is a blueprint for success. We lost a group game and went close to winning the final. France, who had a coach in place for eight years, got knocked out in the semi-finals. New Zealand spent I don't know how much money yet were knocked out in the quarters."

Ashton added: "It's about what happens when you get to the tournament that counts. It's the group of players that you've got with you. It's not about what you've done the previous two or three years, it's what you do for the seven weeks you're out there. Once we were there it was a totally different experience to what I expected. You live aday-to-day existence."

Ashton is hoping his future with England will be a lot more secure than that.