March 11, 2014
What’s wrong with Argentine rugby?
For the Herald
Internationally, Argentina has had a poor year — two wins and nine defeats in test matches and they only won their last match by 19-14 because Italy’s Australian-born kicker missed most of his attempts. But the Pumas’ overall yearly record is likely to remain poor while they participate in the Rugby Championship against the top rugby nations. They are well below their standard at the moment, but should continue to participate in it to try and raise their game. Yet there could be room for improvement in other areas.
The Argentine Rugby Union (UAR), to their credit, have never been close to the politics of the government of the day, but they have their own politics — a cancer that appears in many sports federations, which must be removed. It is more than just a rumour that former Pumas captain Agustín Pichot has a big say in who plays for and who coaches the Pumas. This has resulted in internal team rifts, also involving the coaching staff, which became public, annoying head coach Santiago Phelan and prompting his resignation before the November European tour, although his contract ran until the end of the year. The division in the team was one group responding to Pichot and another to player Patricio Albacete... which is why the latter was passed over for captain.
Daniel Hourcade, coach of a national lower team (Pampas) was named as a replacement for the three tests in Europe and his contract has just been extended until the 2015 World Cup, but there is still the possibility of signing a foreign coach hanging in the air. Australian Michael Cheika has been mentioned. When New Zealand World Cup winning coach Graham Henry was here helping the test team preparations, he gave several recommendations, few of which were accepted. One was to bring back Marcelo Loffreda as head coach. Loffreda was the best coach the Pumas ever had, but Pichot did not like him. Henry left and did not return, and it was not because he had no time. We understand that Loffreda would be willing to take the job.
When the International Rugby Board (IRB) finally started paying the UAR yearly financial assistance, it was earmarked mainly to build five training centres all over the country. This was done, except in Buenos Aires which has the most players. It lagged behind, which can be put down as part of the reason why the Buenos Aires Union (URBA) has not done so well in inter-provincial tournaments of late. Finally, it is going to be built now, including UAR offices, on a small part of the 24 hectares bought by Pichot and associates in Nordelta. The rest of the land is for building and selling houses, which has nothing to do with the UAR.
The latest is that the UAR is studying a change in statutes which would lengthen the presidential term to four years, which is unusual in the rugby world. One candidate for president is Carlos Araujo, who is close to Pichot.
Argentina is the only country among the leading rugby nations which does not have professional rugby and although they have plenty of professionals playing abroad — which make up most of the Pumas team — many believe that they will never reach the standard of the other countries until they have a professional league. This is economically impossible in Argentina as it would not draw enough spectators or sponsors and television coverage as soccer, even if they bring in foreign players, not top class of course. The top players in the special training programme are paid monthly, but the comparatively small amount would barely cover expenses and does not stop them from accepting more lucrative contracts abroad (as was mistakenly hoped).
It is also strange that the UAR often asks clubs to release players for international duty when the clubs are obliged to do so during the international windows. By asking and not demanding, the result is that Argentina often does not field its strongest team.
There may be nothing wrong with the standard of local rugby in clubs which want to, and need to, stay amateur. But this columnist thinks, the present URBA championship format with its 86 clubs is bad and the plan for next season is worse. In 2014’s top division, there would be three zones of eight clubs playing seven games in a first phase from which clubs qualify for the Top 14. But this means that after only seven games at the start of the season a club will be either in or out of title contention... which is unjust and incredible. This is yet another sport where they think that things will improve with frequent changes in the championship format.
However, for 2015, the plan is more serious and will return to what a proper championship was years ago — groups of 12 clubs in each division playing two rounds, home and away. The top division winner would be champion without unfair title play-offs, it is hoped and the bottom two would be relegated. The ninth and tenth would play off against the third and fourth of the lower division for promotion. The top two lower division clubs would be promoted automatically... and so on in every division. This would shorten the season from 27 to 24 weeks, which would not be a bad idea either.
But there is a blot. Players and spectators are unfortunately learning from soccer and complain more about the referee. Also, when Felipe Conteponi retired from the Pumas this season and returned to play for his old club, Cardenal Newman, he had as much right to complain. On and off the field, he experienced the bad sportsmanship which has crept into local rugby clubs. He received kicks in play and when he came off, a boy in the stands swore at him while a bottle was also thrown at him.
Ruefully he said: “Here they say that in professional rugby one loses the value of sportsmanship. I have played both professional rugby in Europe and now the amateur game here and this behaviour does not happen in the pro game.”