Argentina legend Agustin Pichot slams rugby's 'closed shop' mentality

Argentina legend Agustin Pichot slams ‘closed shop’ mentality that is killing the rising nations… as he warns rugby is at a critical point with England, Australia and South Africa in the red

  • Agustin Pichot claims rugby’s ‘closed shop’ mentality is killing the rising nations 
  • Emerging nations such as Georgia have been locked out of new Nations League
  • Portugal could build on World Cup victory over Fiji with meaningful fixtures 
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

After three years of keeping his counsel, Agustin Pichot is finally ready to break his silence. ‘Talk soon,’ he says over WhatsApp, before boarding a flight from Buenos Aires to France.

He agrees to meet at his hotel in Marseille’s old port. It is the morning after Argentina’s riotous victory over Wales — in what has been acclaimed as the greatest rugby weekend of all time — but the mood is not one of celebration for the former Pumas captain.

‘I was here in 2007,’ he says, stirring a cup of mate — Argentina’s national drink — on the terrace overlooking the harbour. ‘We were in a hotel here and we were third in the world. It is déjà vu, I promise.’

It is a loaded comment. Pichot is not referring to the panoramic views of the pretty boats bobb ing in the water. He has decided it is time to expose rugby’s damaging refusal to grow into a global game, having stayed silent since losing out to Sir Bill Beaumont in the World Rugby chairman election in May 2020.

This is a timely intervention, given events at this World Cup. Portugal captivated a global audience with their heroic performances, beating Fiji, and were greeted by thousands of fans on their return to Lisbon. 

Agustin Pichot (above) claims rugby’s ‘closed shop’ mentality is killing the rising nations

Portugal recorded their first ever Rugby World Cup win over Fiji in dramatic fashion

Uruguay almost upset France. Chile performed with honour after qualifying for the showpiece for the first time. Samoa came agonisingly close to beating England. The mood is that the sport must open up to these emerging countries. But Pichot fears this won’t happen, at a time when plans for the new Nations League — which will ring-fence the top 12 teams for several years — are being finalised in Paris. No wonder he fears the same old story of self-interest protecting the status quo.

When he wades into the topic, he does so with passion. ‘It’s not a global game,’ says Pichot. ‘We can say, “Oh, Portugal beat Fiji” but I strongly believe rugby is at a critical point. A lot of unions are trying to keep the old boys’ club.

‘I tried to come and help but the Six Nations blocked me — calling every union, especially Alan Gilpin (World Rugby chief executive) and JJ (John Jeffrey, the favourite to replace Beaumont as World Rugby chairman) because they are threatened. Come on guys, it’s not frightening. I love the game. 

‘Bill came to Argentina last year and I said, “Bill, I ran against you because you wanted to go down one path that won’t expand and be global”. You can see it now. Nothing has changed.’

Portugal have emerged in France as symbols of upward mobility and the sport could take off there if encouraged, with regular, meaningful fixtures to build on momentum. The team have been feted at home, invited to meet the president and captain Tomas Appleton had a shirt-swapping photo-call with Cristiano Ronaldo. But what of their prospects now?

‘Call me in June 2026 and ask me about Portugal,’ says Pichot. ‘It will be a déjà vu story. You have the Six Nations in one corner and the Rugby Championship in another. It’s self-preservation, survival. The system is done to protect the core. They have to see that bigger is better but they won’t take that risk. But they are already at risk. They are in the red. It has to be a discussion of taking risks for a bigger vision.’

So can he see the powers-that-be coming to their senses and recognising the need for growth? ‘It will be exactly the same,’ adds Pichot. ‘This is the rule of insanity — keep doing the same and getting the same outcome. Tell me what has changed from Japan (2019 World Cup) to now? Fiji is the one-off and I love it.

‘What is the point of Uruguay arriving in four years if they don’t play one relevant game in that time? In the first week in 2027 they’re going to get smashed. Then they will have a decent game and everyone will say it’s great to see the colours and passion of Uruguay. It’s the same every four years.’

The Argentina legend outlines his concerns for rugby over a cup of mate in Marseille

Uruguay took on the likes of New Zealand and France in their debut appearance at the World Cup

He uses the example of the South American country but it applies to so many of the so-called Tier 2. When his team’s campaign here ended honourably, Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua said he had no idea when the Pacific islanders would next face leading opposition. Georgia have been banging on the Six Nations door for years, but it remains locked and bolted.

As a true visionary, Pichot is adamant that growth is the answer. ‘Where are the numbers?’ he asks. Are you going to get more numbers in New Zealand? In Scotland? In Wales? No. But would you get more people in Paraguay, in Brazil? I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s a vision.

‘Bernard Lapasset, when he was World Rugby chairman, had this vision and that’s why I joined. He asked me to join to counter-act the home unions. I told Bill Beaumont, “I won’t bother you, I want to grow this game and you are a rugby guy so we will do it”. Then he wasn’t allowed, because of the (RFU chief executive) Bill Sweeneys of this world and we went separate ways.

‘Bernard had a vision. He asked me to join him to get rugby into the Olympics and I was with him all the way. What relevant thing has happened since 2015? What have we changed since, like Bernard did with the Olympics and with Argentina joining the Rugby Championship?’

During this interview, we are joined by Sebastian Pineyrua, president of South American rugby. He listens to Pichot’s warnings. Meetings are under way between rugby’s power-brokers this week to ratify the Nations League, but the outcome could be divisive and disastrous. For the participating Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams, plus Fiji and Japan, it will be lucrative. But for the rest, stuck on the outside, it won’t be accessible until 2032 at the earliest, if ever.

What was once nicknamed the ‘Pichot plan’ no longer bears any resemblance to the concept he first proposed. ‘The game I love has to be much bigger,’ he says. ‘One idea was the global season, but they twisted it and they made it a closed shop. Again.’

Portugal could build on their World Cup victory over Fiji with meaningful fixtures

Asked about promotion and relegation, he adds: ‘Of what? Is the Six Nations going to be touched? No. SANZAAR (Southern Hemisphere unions) talk about expanding, but how do I give Uruguay a pathway to the Rugby Championship in the next 10 years?’

‘Let’s be clear: this spin-off of my idea is not a global game. It is just a closed shop for six years. We will vote against it. But this is the mad thing, even the Georgia guys will vote for it. Rugby Europe will vote for it. But they get nothing! I don’t know why they would vote for it.’

At this point, Pineyrua speaks up. The man responsible for overseeing rugby in a whole continent, with so much potential, has a doomsday forecast. ‘It’s the death of rugby,’ he says of the Nations League concept. ‘It will kill rugby. It will be impossible to compete with those teams in four or five years. They’re going to go up and the others will go down.’

Neither man has been invited to meetings about the planned event which will alter the landscape of the sport. This is no surprise, as they are seen as a threat to the cosy establishment — certainly Pichot. Vested interests are intent on keeping him in the margins.

‘They blocked me consistently, all of them,’ he says. ‘Alan Gilpin, the rest of Six Nations, why do they want to block somebody from joining the EXCO (World Rugby executive committee)? The chairmen and CEOs sit down and say, “Don’t let him in”. They want to lock me up in that lighthouse over there! But I love this game.

‘It’s always the same. Yesterday, I saw the English guys on the bus and I said, “I know you don’t like me, but we are here, we are in the top four in the world. We are not going away”.’

Pichot is adamant he is not contemplating another attempt to become World Rugby chairman, but his friend alongside will try to persuade him. ‘He’s the only one who can change this,’ says Pineyrua.

When it came to the 2020 vote, officials turned against Pichot, as the then French federation president, Bernard Laporte, engaged in murky political manoeuvring on behalf of Beaumont. The man who was beaten 28-23 wouldn’t operate that way and it cost him. 

Emerging nations Georgia, Chile and Samoa have been locked out of the new Nations League

‘I would never phone Fiji and trade for a vote,’ he says. ‘I could have won the election, believe me, but I wouldn’t go that extra step, because rugby is a special thing for me. And if I betray that, I lose respect. That is what I have in rugby. I think people respect me.’

What he wants to bring to the table is a mix of passion and pragmatism. Pichot is concerned about rugby’s financial outlook.

‘I’m a romantic but I’m not stupid,’ he says. ‘I am a businessman and I know the P&Ls (profits and losses) are important to sustain the business. Rugby is in the red. Look at Wales, the Premiership. Look anywhere. The problem is that costs are going up but there’s no better income and not a better product to show.

‘I heard the other day that England is £20m in deficit… England! South Africa, red. Wales, red. Australia, red. The Premiership, red. Everyone is in survival mode. South Africa doesn’t have money. It is alarming. Rugby has to lower costs to make it sustainable.

‘We are spending more and more and that is not logical. And we are not spending it on Bitcoins or innovation. It is a sport that is growing old, it is not attractive, not innovative. Look at the crowds. What are we giving the kids? How is Twitch happening? TikTok?

‘The chief executives run the game. The P&Ls don’t work but they carry on, with an EXCO that is useless. We need to help the CEOs, about how to take care of the money. If not, they will pay bonuses to themselves and have a great lifestyle while some rugby clubs are poor. It’s simple. It is not working.’

Pichot is not hopeful of the game going through a sudden enlightenment, but won’t stay quiet any longer. He will keep pushing and demanding, while coaching junior rugby in Buenos Aires.

Pichot lost out to Sir Bill Beaumont in the World Rugby chairman election in May 2020

He speaks with pride about Argentina’s economic management and how they support their neighbours. It is a collaborative approach which isn’t followed elsewhere. ‘Argentina’s financials are immaculate,’ he says. ‘So we can afford to invest. How many of the unions in the north can say they can afford to invest in Georgia, Romania or Spain?

‘People say we are stupid, but we believe Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil — maybe Colombia next — will grow the continent. It’s a vision. And, by the way, we qualified two teams for the World Cup when USA and Canada didn’t.’

According to Pichot and Pineyrua, the North American countries are largely run by British and Irish officials and are in political league with the home unions. They fear for the World Cup in the USA in 2031 and are convinced that, if progress continues on the same trajectory in South America, there would be better prospects of a successful tournament there.

That’s another looming problem. Pichot can’t solve them all, but he can’t just sit by and watch the edifice crumble. He wants to drag the sport towards a brighter future, if vested interests don’t keep standing in his way.

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