Unions are ‘on their knees’ but Agustin Pichot thinks he can save rugby as World Rugby chairman
Pichot is modest. During his 71 international selections, he became a talismanic figure of Argentine rugby, captain of the Pumas during a third breakthrough at the 2007 World Cup.
These days, he lends his voice to the political side of the game.
After becoming vice president of World Rugby in 2016, Pichot now hopes to succeed former English captain Bill Beaumont as president. Sunday, the World Rugby Council will rule on the question of whether it is Pichot or Beaumont, 23 years the oldest from Argentina, who will lead the governing body.
Pichot saw rugby sevens making their Olympic bow in 2016, helped organize seven tournaments in Vancouver and Singapore, and increased the residency rules for rugby from three to five years – which means countries can better retain best players living abroad.
But he says that frustration with the current leadership of the sport has forced him to run for the highest office.
“The game desperately needs – not from myself – but from different mindsets,” says Pichot.
“I was part of World Rugby and at one point I felt that this rate of change or transformation was very blocked by a conservative way of thinking. The structure, the mentality of copying, and pasting again.
“I said to Bill, ‘I can’t go on for four more years, I just sit in first-class flight and go to the royal boxes.
“‘I’m not doing this. If I don’t think I can transform myself, I’ll go home’ … And that’s why I decided to run.”
Follow the example of football
The model has been criticized by the International Rugby Players Council and some of the game’s main players, but Pichot maintains that the sport needs a system that creates a path for emerging nations.
In doing so, he hopes to break the small handful of countries that dominate the global game; the nine rugby world cups since 1987 have produced only four different winners.
“We have to build regions like football a – regional tournaments that can fuel qualifying for our World Cup,” said Pichot.
“Football has done so well … you have qualifications in each region, which are very competitive. Then you have the European Cup, the African Cup (Nations) or the America’s Cup (Copa America ).
“You take advantage of this regional competitiveness, then you enter the world stage to be competitive … But to do this, you have to invest in different regions and start slowly to create this plan.”
A chance to reset
The upcoming elections have already been very controversial.
Francis Kean, president of the Fiji Rugby Federation (FRU) who supported Beaumont’s candidacy for re-election, was removed from office by World Rugby following accusations of homophobia and discrimination. CNN contacted FRU chief John O’Connor for comment but received no response.
Of the 51 members of the World Rugby Council who will vote in this weekend’s elections, 30 are divided between 10 nations – Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales.
Beaumont, former captain of the British and Irish and Irish Lions, runs alongside French rugby chief Bernard Laporte, the only candidate for the vice-presidency.
“In this unprecedented difficult period, I am working hard with all stakeholders to guide rugby through the COVID-19 crisis and to shape and build the most solid future in the world play. My manifesto, with Bernard Laporte, describes my vision of a game for all, “said Beaumont.
His manifesto promises a review of the governance of the game and reform of the world season, as well as an increased focus on women’s play, player well-being, and World Rugby financial policy.
The latter was highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic as unions fight to achieve financial parity.
Rugby Canada also said it would likely need financial assistance from World Rugby later this year.
However, Pichot is convinced that the coronavirus – which has seen rugby on hiatus around the world – also presents an opportunity for the sport to reset itself.
“I think this virus has made us all think a little more globally … and be more supportive of the world,” he said.
“We have to develop a different strategy, a better strategy, and integrate more equality, better governance. I think it’s time. I think crises are a great opportunity to do things differently. And rugby has been in crisis.”
“The problem is that, just because everything has gone well in some countries, we have continued. But I said two years ago, if we continue (at) this pace, countries will fall back. The United States is on its knees, Canada is on its knees, Australia is on its knees. ”
Speaking of his own vision, Pichot rejects the idea that he is the “Robin Hood” figure of rugby – leveraging the richest powers in the game to help the poorest unions – but says he wants to see people like Fiji, Japan, the United States and Canada, among others, get better representation in the global fixture list.
Another more left-wing commitment that Pichot made during his campaign is to help develop a new rugby video game.
The sport has often lagged behind its rivals when it comes to the virtual world – football and the NFL have created games at FIFA and Madden – and Pichot said he had previously spoken to the CEO about EA Sports about rugby developing their own product to appeal to a younger audience.
“It is an industry that no one could have imagined,” he adds. “We have to work on it. Again, you need a good product. The kids want a good product and it’s a lot of investment, I understand that.”
The result of Sunday’s election will be announced on May 12, after which Pichot could be given the actual controls of rugby.
He is confident that he can press the buttons on the right to advance the game.