Pumas relish top-tier competition: Pichot

Reuters, LONDON

Thu, Aug 16, 2012 - Page 18

Finally getting the opportunity to play in a regular competition against top-tier nations would be “tough,” but equally as rewarding, according to former Argentina captain Agustin Pichot.

The Pumas, who finished third at the 2007 World Cup, finally end years of exclusion from competitions like the Six Nations and Tri-Nations when they play their opening match in the Rugby Championship against the Springboks in Cape Town on Saturday.

“It’s tough ... the first word I said to you was it would be a difficult challenge,” Pichot said at the London Olympics. “It’s going to be very difficult ... it’s probably going to be the most difficult tournament in the world. Here you play week-in, week-out, 12 hours by plane and you have to see them all over again.”

“To be fair, they come to you and they are the best ... so you are playing against the best three teams in the world, twice? [It’s] tough,” he said.

After years of being neglected by much of the top-tier rugby nations, Argentina began more intense lobbying, pleading and negotiating to join either the Six Nations or Tri-Nations, following their 25-25 draw against the British and Irish Lions in 2005.

Those pleas increased in volume when Pichot’s Pumas stunned hosts France in the opening match of the 2007 World Cup before beating them again in the third-place playoff.

“In the last 10 or 15 years, we worked really hard on the pitch to gain respect so we could be part of an annual competition,” the 37-year-old former scrumhalf said.

“I think we were only playing three or four games a year, that wasn’t fair. So when we came into a World Cup, we were always on the back foot,” he added.

While there were murmurs that the Pumas and their predominantly European-based players could enter an expanded Six Nations and be based in Barcelona without causing a club-country tussle, the southern hemisphere’s nations agreed to expand their Tri-Nations with certain provisos.

The International Rugby Board (IRB) had to come to the party for any financial losses. The Pumas had to be at full strength. They also had to develop their domestic player base.

As such, their third-strength Pampas XV side began playing in South Africa’s third-tier competition, below Super Rugby and the Currie Cup.

The Pampas won the competition last year and Pichot said all of the hard work done by people in the background and former players like himself lobbying at every opportunity was coming to fruition.

“I think, although it’s a very difficult challenge, but I think the respect of the world said: ‘OK, Argentina is now part of a big concert [competition], it’s playing the Rugby Championship, it’s part of the southern nations and let’s help them to do better,’” Pichot said.

“Personally, I think it’s highly satisfying to have been part of the whole process as well,” he added. “As an Argentine, I’m going to be very proud next weekend in Cape Town playing against South Africa because we fought very hard and it’s a lot of history for Argentina rugby.”