Agustín Pichot says that Argentina cannot hope to contend for the Castle Rugby Championship title until the country has its own Super Rugby franchise, reports JON CARDINELLI in Buenos Aires.
The Pumas were smashed at Soccer City last Saturday, conceding a record 73-13 score to the Springboks. It was a humiliating result and a performance that has sparked fresh debate about Argentina's involvement in what is the elite annual showpiece.
Will they ever close the gap between themselves and the three southern hemisphere superpowers? Pichot, a former Pumas scrumhalf and now a UAR board member who works closely with Sanzar, has his doubts.
In an exclusive interview with SARugbymag.co.za, Pichot said that Argentina needs a Super Rugby franchise to develop its players and prepare them for a challenge as demanding as that in the Rugby Championship.
While Argentina earned some respect in the inaugural 2012 tournament, Pichot feels that they will never progress until they establish a link between the country's clubs and the national team.
Super Rugby will expand again in 2016, and while South Africa is lobbying for the inclusion of a sixth franchise, Argentina is hoping to join the competition with a team of its own.
Pichot is at the forefront of that plea for inclusion, and as he told this website, participation is absolutely vital if Argentina are to become serious contenders.
'If you think about it, it's taken a long time for Argentina to catch up with the rest of the world,' he said. 'Even now, we are still not fully professional. We don't have anything like your Currie Cup, we don't have control of our best players, the only thing we have achieved is the opportunity to play six times a year against the three best teams in the world.
'Of course, just being involved doesn't signify progress. That doesn't mean you have arrived as contenders. It was important to join an international competition, but what we are missing now is a franchise. You need to have your players competing on a weekly basis against the best the southern hemisphere has to offer.'
There is a widely held belief that Argentina have improved over the past few years, and that because many of their top players are contracted to top European clubs, they should be competitive.
However, as Pichot points out, the game in Europe is vastly different to what is played in the southern hemisphere. Pichot feels that if the bulk of Argentina's players were involved in Super Rugby, then progression to the Rugby Championship would be easier.
The difference between the two tournaments is that one is regional, and the other international. And yet, both have made use of players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa ever since 1996, and there is a similarity in the playing philosophy. The playing conditions are also identical.
Argentina will know by the end of 2013 whether they have been granted a franchise or not, as will South Africa in terms of their bid for a sixth franchise. This should give them time to prepare for their debut in 2016.
Again, Pichot stresses that this is crucial for the development of Argentinian rugby. He admitted that the Argentina team may continue to struggle in the Rugby Championship, and that it could possibly take more time after the impending Super Rugby inclusion in 2016 before the Pumas started to reap the benefits.
'Those are the challenges. We believe we can add value to this tournament, and we know that it will take time.
'What is the reality at the moment? I think what happened last week at Soccer City should never happen, you should never concede 70 points. But then I don't think that what happened in Mendoza last year was a true reflection either.
'Yes, it was a great result for Argentina [who drew 16-16 with the Boks], but did it really reflect the situation? I don't think so. The reality is there is 20 to 30 points difference between South Africa and Argentina.'
Pichot said that meetings with Sanzar are ongoing, and that while nothing has been decided, Argentina is preparing for the green light.
'We will adapt to any format that Sanzar comes up with. We are prepared for anything,' he said. 'If Super Rugby doesn't happen, there's no sense in having Argentina in the Rugby Championship. It's illogical. If Argentina doesn't get the franchise, it will just be six games a year where the top tier compete, and the other players in this country don't have any competition at all.'
Pichot added that Argentina has the player base and structures to ensure that a Super Rugby side would be a success.
At this point, however, it's much like the Southern Kings' scenario in that players, both young and old, don't have a local Super Rugby team to aspire to.
The best players in Argentina will continue to accept lucrative offers from abroad until the country has a Super Rugby franchise.
'We have the structures,' said Pichot. 'What is lacking now is the continuity. We have the players in the schools, in our academies, in our high-performances centres. They come through, and then they leave to play for a club like Saracens, Leinster, or Toulon.
'What we don't have is the route to professional rugby. We don't have that level. The Pampas have been a success in South Africa playing in the Vodacom Cup. A number of players have benefited from that and have gone on to represent Argentina.
'Unfortunately, Vodacom Cup level is not on a par with Super Rugby. We have plans to compete in the Pacific Nations Cup next year in an attempt to improve our depth, but ultimately, we need the Super Rugby franchise. It's a no-brainer.'
Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
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