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World Rugby’s Agustín Pichot warns international game is facing ‘ruin’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/09/2018 Robert Kitson
Australia v South Africa: Australia and South Africa in action in Brisbane on Saturday but a new model is needed to preserve the international game, says Agustín Pichot. © Getty Images Australia and South Africa in action in Brisbane on Saturday but a new model is needed to preserve the international game, says Agustín Pichot. One of rugby’s most senior officials has warned that the entire future of the international game is under threat unless the sport takes urgent action within the next 12 months.

Agustín Pichot, World Rugby’s vice-chairman, has called for unions and clubs to hammer out a fresh collective 10-year blueprint before next year’s World Cup in Japan, admitting the current financial model “is not working”.

Only 18 months ago World Rugby announced an historic agreement in San Francisco that was intended to give clarity to the global calendar until 2032. Pichot has now revealed, however, that fresh discussions on how to make the Test game more viable will be held in Sydney later this month and accepts there are “a lot of problems that we need to address”.

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World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont and vice-chairman Agustín Pichot © Getty World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont and vice-chairman Agustín Pichot There are few more passionate administrators anywhere than Pichot and the former Argentina captain and scrum-half is genuinely concerned that time is running out to save the traditional Test game from the financial abyss. Together with Bill Beaumont, World Rugby’s chairman, he is committed to future-proofing his beloved sport, with the amalgamation of the existing June and November windows into one block among the proposals to make Test fixtures more meaningful.

“If you ask me as a businessman, the business side of it is not working,” Pichot said. “If you ask me as the playing side, it’s not working. Is the international game under threat? I think it is. Look at the balance sheets of some nations and you can see exactly where we stand.

“By the 2019 World Cup we need to have a blueprint for the next 10 years. On a scale of one to 10, I think we’re four out of 10 now [in terms of finding a solution] but before we were not even on the chart. We need to push that needle from four to at least six or seven. I’m not going to be an accomplice to rugby’s ruin.”

Pichot is acutely aware, though, that many of the game’s power-brokers are pulling in different directions. The Premiership club owners are currently in negotiations to secure new multimillion-pound backing for their league, having turned down an offer of £275m for 51% of the league, and, with the Test window now set for July, have already announced future domestic seasons will extend into June.

Pichot fears the players are increasingly caught in the crossfire. “It’s all a trade-off and who pays for that? The players. I felt that Premier Rugby didn’t honour what we said in the San Francisco meeting. At the end of the day we wanted that shift [of the Test window to July] to give international players a rest if they were playing too many games. That for us is the most important thing.

“My view is that players cannot carry on playing as they are now. You cannot have them playing 30-odd competitive club and international games just because you want bums on seats.

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“I have been a professional player so I understand how it goes but you have to take care of the athlete. The first principle is the players’ welfare because they inspire everyone, both us now and the next generation. That is important for the growth of the game.”

The mere fact, though, that the San Francisco agreement is to be revisited underlines the seriousness of the financial situation facing certain unions, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

With Pichot’s term of office due to expire after the next World Cup, a pivotal moment in global rugby’s history is fast approaching. “I’m a business guy and I want to have a safe business model and for the international game to be respected,” Pichot said. “The growth of the game is very big for me; I like to see emerging countries develop.

“If rugby wants to be big and a sound business, we cannot behave like an old-school organisation. We have a group in Sydney to reopen the door, then I think all parties should meet again. We should work with them to see what’s better. How many games does a club need to break even? How many games does a nation need? But ask the big club owners and they all want the international game. It is not a question of them not wanting the international game.”

Pichot also believes he is uniquely placed to unite the various factions. “The biggest problem – in business and in sport – is egos. I don’t have that problem. Premier Rugby is a big problem but I’m not so emotionally involved. We’re going to give it 130 %.”

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