‘The game needs a reset – and I’m the man to do it’: Agustin Pichot talks to SIR CLIVE WOODWARD about campaign to become chairman of World Rugby at upcoming election
- Agustin Pichot will challenge Bill Beaumont in World Rugby chairman election
- Pichot believes it is vitally important that the sport becomes more democratic
- The Argentine has been understudy to current chairman Beaumont since 2016
- Pichot predicts promotion and relegation would improve sport’s global appeal
Bill Beaumont and challenger Agustin Pichot are in the final week of their election campaign to become chairman of World Rugby.
Incumbent Beaumont looks as though he can count on 21 votes so far in next Sunday’s election, while Argentine Pichot has 19 pledged, which leaves another 11 to decide.
Here, former Argentina scrum-half Pichot is quizzed by England’s World Cup-winning coach and Sportsmail columnist Sir Clive Woodward on his vision for the game’s future.
Agustin Pichot has spoken to Sportsmail’s Sir Clive Woodward about the World Rugby election
Clive Woodward: I’m delighted that you’re running for this election — rugby governance needs a radical change — but my first question is: why?
I’ve always thought that World Rugby politics is at best outdated and immovable but it is also unfair. So, what’s the big buzz entering a fight most would say is impossible to win?
Agustin Pichot: I remember when Will Carling spoke about the ‘old farts’ in 1995. The game has always been slow-paced with its thinking. As a player for Argentina, we were always arguing that the establishment was not moving.
I walked into a meeting with (then New Zealand captain) Richie McCaw in 2007 and I thought, ‘Wow, this is worse than I thought’. One month later, the Argentinian Rugby Union asked me to help them with a re-shape.
But I had spent most of my career complaining about the system — how it was not fair — so I thought it was my responsibility to take on the challenge. That’s where it started.
I didn’t want to spend my time doing copy-and-pastes. I wanted to make a difference, and I don’t think the sport can carry on in the same way. It’s the same as 2007, which is why I am running.
Pichot says developing countries must be given a say if the body is to become truly democratic
CW: How have you found the last four years, as understudy to Bill? I look at the voting structure and at best it is just not fair. It’s totally wrong that the Six Nations all vote together in a pack mentality.
Why can’t countries think for themselves and explain their own decisions? Do you not find it impossible to work in a system which, from the outside, appears to be rigged?
AP: I needed to be on the inside to understand how it is working. Just like I needed to study videos of Martin Johnson before we played against England. What I admired about your team in 2003 was the change in mindset. There was a shift towards modern thinking.
The first thing World Rugby needs is a mindset change. At the moment, the mindset is very conservative and politics has become involved.
People are afraid of the Six Nations and they don’t trust World Rugby. Everything is built on fragile terms because there is no collaborative thinking. Everything has been copied and pasted, so we haven’t had that time to reset and ask: ‘What do we really need?’
Pichot says he has learned a lot from current chairman and election opponent Bill Beaumont
CW: ‘Reset’ is the key word. The coronavirus is a terrible thing and it has forced rugby to a crossroads. The sport will never get a better opportunity to reset than now.
You said the sport hasn’t changed since 2007. I think that there are elements that haven’t changed in 40 years. But the voting system concerns me. How do Italy have a vote worth three times that of Fiji? This voting system reflects so badly on rugby.
AP: I need to make the voters understand that I’m not against the tradition of the game. I’m against it not evolving. Maybe there’s no point in me calling some of the Six Nations unions — they’ve already made up their mind.
If France or England get angry with them then they will suffer the consequences, you know what I mean? But we all have to sit down — players, clubs, private equity — as friends, not enemies. We all need to get together on a regular basis to change the way of thinking; not just a box-ticking exercise every six months.
The Argentine became vice chairman in 2016 and now plans to restructure voting system
CW: The voting is a private ballot. The rugby world is always banging on about values and standards but there’s no transparency. Should it change to become public?
AP: I would love to see that and I have suggested it. I would love to see how Italy are thinking. I’ve had the backing of SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina) but I’d like to talk to each individual union.
I sent a note to every country individually and haven’t had a reply from some CEOs. I only received one email asking about the future of the game from the Six Nations unions — that was Wales. I think that’s poor.
Every CEO should be responsible for learning what is best for the game, even if they don’t support you.
CW: Again I find it astonishing the Six Nations boards have not given you the platform. I would have thought nations such as Italy especially would have been very interested in talking to you. Is their rugby system working for them? I don’t think so.
There’s a lot of hot air floating around about the global season. It’s a big opportunity — especially in terms of introducing promotion and relegation. I think the Six Nations is killing itself with its closed system.
Italy in the 1990s were fantastic because they were fighting to get into the Six Nations and now they’ve just gone soft. In football, the relegation battles are as interesting as promotion battles. Rugby is missing a trick!
AP: I have kicked the chess board in the air about this before. I have been like a woodpecker hammering because I strongly believe this. I pushed for a meeting with the clubs in San Francisco which was an opportunity to start discussions, not finish them.
But we were comfortable enough to just run a calendar until 2030 and say to the press that we’re giving 20 per cent more games to the Tier Two nations. There are too many non-meaningful games.
Did you see South Africa v France at the Stade de France in 2017? It should’ve been a full house, massive money, but there were thousands of empty seats. I want to see teams playing for their lives.
The introduction of promotion and relegation could easily expand the sport’s audience
CW: So, what does a global season look like? Do the Lions fit into your vision?
AP: First of all, you start with the players. They need to rest.
Secondly, you need structure. At the moment, it is a jigsaw mosaic, so you need to understand what is best for all stakeholders. The Nations Championship structure is the best starting point, but you must involve everyone.
This virus could mean that we do not play the July window, so all Tests are played in October and November.
Maybe that’s better for the clubs and the private equity groups like CVC. CVC will want a better structure to create a better product. People think I don’t like tradition but I speak to Lions players like Brian O’Driscoll and it’s a great product. I love it. There is still room for the Lions. It is a traditional thing but we can still add a modern look to it.
I would use the British and Irish Lions on a more worldwide scale. I’d like to see that brand travel even further. They would be very popular in North and South America but that’s a conversation to have with the Lions CEO.
Pichot believes a modern makeover could further build the popularity of the Lions team
CW: I’ve met with CVC. They are mentioned a lot without people understanding who they are. How do they fit in?
AP: They want to make a profit… it’s not rocket science. You need to engage them, you need to see how you can together work to make a better game, simple. You have to reset the thinking. Don’t tell me to go straight to pay cuts and sacking people. That’s the simplest way to sort a profit and loss problem, but we don’t have to start that way.
First, we can become more efficient. Don’t be frightened to press the reset button and change how we do business.
CW: And what do you make of World Rugby coming out suddenly with this huge chunk of money that is available?
The cynical side of me says that was interesting timing, just before the election. They should have waited until the new chairman comes in, and let him make that decision.
AP: You said it, not me. If countries need it now, urgently, it’s there for them. I will always put the good side of the game against the cynical side. I could have gone out and blocked it but I don’t work that way.
Pichot played 71 games for Argentina from 1995 to 2005, coming third in the 2007 World Cup
CW: In the Sunday newspapers, Bill spoke about changing the eligibility rules so the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola can go back to play for the Pacific Islands. Do you agree with this?
I just shake my head how anyone could think that was a good idea in any shape or form.
It feels like giving them the leftovers. We should want to create a system where they want to play for those nations in the first place.
AP: Maybe I will lose an election for this, but I strongly believe in players playing for their countries. The Vunipolas and Tuilagi have lived in England all their life so it is their right to play for England.
I understand 100 per cent why some of the countries like Samoa and Tonga would want the players back. But if I’m a Tonga player and suddenly a player who has elected to play for England decides to come back and takes my position, how will I feel?
I’m happy to discuss it, but I’m not going to say that it would change. Countries like Uruguay and Canada, remember, probably won’t have the same luxury.
CW: The million-dollar question, Gus, do you think you can win this? It feels like David taking on Goliath.
AP: Clive, I’ve faced tough teams at Twickenham, I’ve played in the House of Pain (Carisbrook) in New Zealand and I always believe I can win.
My family thinks I’m completely mad but the amount of support I’ve received is more than I could have asked for.
CW: And going into the final week of campaigning, what’s your one message that you want people to hear?
AP: That I’m trying to make an equal balance in the global game. It’s not a Robin Hood story. I’m not trying to take from the rich and give to the poor.
We have to look at what is around us and have a better society. The emerging nations need help.
CW: I do think you’re the man to lead rugby through this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Nik Simon listened in.