World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot tells JON CARDINELLI why the game and indeed the mindset of its chief decision-makers have to change sooner rather than later.
Pichot gives one the impression that his cause – a push for a global season that will unite the two hemispheres and address the game’s financial and player-welfare issues – is more important than his personal ambitions. The reason he is running for the World Rugby chairman position now rather than in 2024 is because the game cannot afford to sit on its heels and maintain the status quo.
South Africa will be in lockdown until the end of April – and it remains to be seen whether it will then be further extended or partially relaxed. When I call Pichot at his home in Buenos Aires, the former Argentina scrumhalf confirms that his country is facing a similar challenge.
Pichot is quick to point out, however, that the crisis has presented the game with an opportunity.
’It was clear to me and many others long before the Covid-19 outbreak that the game was in need of reshaping and restructuring. It really is a no-brainer,’ he told SARugbymag.co.za.
‘In the time before the coronavirus, the game was not managed in a modern way. Going forward, World Rugby needs to find new ways to interact and engage with the member unions, the players and with private equity. There are issues that have to be addressed but they must be done in a modern way.
‘Everybody is waiting for the green light. Why not use this time to look at a restructure, so that by the time play resumes we are ready to start putting plans into place.’
Bill Beaumont is expected to win the election and stand for another term as World Rugby chairman. And yet there are many – including England’s 2003 World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward – who feel that change is needed across the board.
So many have attempted to contrast Beaumont (68) and Pichot (45) by highlighting age, physical features and even their preferred choice in shoes. The ponderous former England captain represents the old guard, while the passionate Argentinian represents a challenge to rigid and, in some cases, outdated values.
Pichot himself, however, feels it’s a sense of urgency that sets the two men apart.
‘I’m a man of action. I believe that when you say something, you do it. I have a lot of respect for Bill, and I would never criticise him. I just have a different view about the way things should be done.
‘If you look back at the past four years, how much has actually changed? Are things more or less the same? The answer to those questions might say something about the mindset at the moment.
‘Bill brought me on board in 2015. I told him that I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to transform the way the game was managed. By year three, however, it was becoming clear to me that we were stuck. I told him so.
‘I love spending time with my family here in Argentina. If I have to be away from home and fly around the world it has to be for a good cause,’ he added. ‘I don’t want to make that sacrifice just so that rugby can stay the same and that we find ourselves in a similar position years down the line.
‘For me, I believe time is a precious commodity. I don’t want to get caught up in the bureaucracy. I believe we should be proactive rather than reactive.’
Pichot’s manifesto – which champions a global season and ultimately a system that benefits major and minnow rugby nations – has found a lot of support. But how does one go about changing a system that’s been in place for decades?
Pichot points to the revolution that followed the 1987 World Cup. He cites the massive shift that followed after rugby went professional in 1995.
The inference is that the men from the south have pushed for change in the past and that a lot of rugby people – including the old guard – have reaped the benefits. Pichot acknowledges the challenges, but stresses that rugby has no choice but to divert from its current path.
‘It’s starts with a mindset, doesn’t it? You start to prioritise things and put an objective into place. If you come up against a problem, you look for a creative solution. You keep working until you get an answer.
‘If things aren’t working or there is something holding you back, you make changes. Rugby teams have the same approach. When players don’t perform, they are replaced with players who can make a difference.’
Will the old guard accept such changes, though? Will those fighting to protect the status quo take some convincing?
‘Look, I speak to a lot of people. If the club owners aren’t happy, the players aren’t happy, and those putting money into the game aren’t happy, then it’s very clear to me that something is wrong.
‘You have to be critical of a system in that scenario. Common sense will tell you that change is necessary. How you go about implementing that change, and how do you get people to move in the same direction? Of course that is a challenge.
‘I competed in the northern and southern hemispheres during my playing days,’ he adds. ‘I’m aware of the challenges nowadays because I engage with players and various stakeholders on a regular basis.
‘There are too many matches on the go in some tournaments, particularly in the north. That needs to be discussed. The Tests that play out every July and November are largely meaningless. How do we make those games meaningful again? I’m not sure whether the Nations Championship [a proposed world league featuring the top 10 Test teams] is the definitive answer, but it is a move in the right direction.
‘These problems aren’t insurmountable. Again, it’s all starts with a change in mindset. How do I solve this problem? Think creatively and take action.’
If Pichot were to edge Beaumont in the vote and take the lead as World Rugby chairman, when would these revolutionary changes come into effect? The current broadcast deals run until after the 2023 World Cup. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take time to make the change.
The alternative, of course, has World Rugby dragging its feel and the sport waiting longer and longer for a change that can save it.
‘It’s really hard to say when that [a global season] would come into effect,’ Pichot said.
‘Right now everyone has bigger things to worry about with the coronavirus. The focus for rugby will be the financial shortfall. When play resumes, strategies will need to be implemented to ensure targets are hit.
‘I will always speak well of Bill,’ he added of his boss-turned-opponent. ‘I’m happy to see that he’s also talking about change in his manifesto.
‘We may have different mindsets, but it’s encouraging to think that the winner of the election will make some sort of change. There is no other option in the current scenario. There’s no turning back to the old ways.’
Photo: World Rugby/Getty Images