The former CEO of SANZAR has moved halfway around the world to take up the role of General Manager at the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR). Alastair Pickering speaks to him about the move and the creation of Argentina’s first professional team
RW: What convinced you to leave one of the biggest jobs in global rugby to head up a single national union?
GP: I had reached a juncture. We had the expanded competition in place, broadcasting deals locked and loaded for the next cycle, with a significant increase, and the SANZAR joint venture had been renegotiated to include Argentina. That made it the right time to consider new opportunities. When the UAR approached me it wasn’t too difficult to make the decision.
RW: After Argentina’s strong showing at last year’s World Cup, you couldn’t have moved to Buenos Aires at a better time…
GP: The way we played at the World Cup appealed to a lot of people, not just here in Argentina but globally. In many ways we were the darlings of the tournament because we performed so well, playing an attractive brand of rugby that people want to see.
RW: How were the performances received back home in Argentina?
GP: The success of the team was massive news in a football-mad country. During the World Cup, rugby had a great deal of prominence in the media, assisted by the appearance of Diego Maradona at some of our matches – which went viral all over the world!
RW: Was the expectation before the tournament to reach a second World Cup semi-final?
GP: We actually had goals to go further than the semi-finals. I’m very happy with where we ended up but in terms of achieving our overall aim, we backed ourselves to give it a good crack in the semi-final, but were playing catch-up rugby right from the start.
RW: Does the team’s success make your job harder?
GP: We have never been able to hide under the radar. Argentina is a proud rugby nation and where we are now is the result of seven or eight years’ work put in long before I was here, by the Board and other individuals, including Agustin Pichot (the former Argentina captain). They have worked hard to establish high-performance centres throughout the country which are now producing world-class players.
RW: The new Jaguares team will compete in an expanded Super Rugby competition this year. How difficult was it to convince the majority of Argentina’s World Cup squad to return home, despite the money on offer elsewhere, particularly in France and England?
GP: We are not in a position to compete with the European market, just like our southern hemisphere partners. We don’t have the resources or desire to compete at that level. But what is really exciting is that the players are so passionate about competing in Super Rugby and playing in their home country for the Jaguares.
RW: The squad is a who’s who of Argentina rugby, boasting the likes of Juan Martín Hernández, Nicolas Sánchez, Santiago Cordero and Pumas captain Agustín Creevy. Will the team be successful in its first season?
GP: We obviously want to win the competition eventually but you have to temper expectations against what is the best rugby competition in the world. We are playing against the best players in the world, week in week out, and the travel burden is of huge significance. Most of the other teams have been used to that for more than 20 years, but it will be a huge challenge for us.
RW: If winning Super Rugby is a long-term goal, what is the aim for this season?
GP: I believe we will perform better than any other new entrant to Super Rugby has performed in their first year.
RW: On paper the new Japan franchise joining Super Rugby, the Sunwolves, is arguably the weakest of all the Super Rugby teams. Are you worried about how competitive they will be in their first season?
GP: All of the new entrants, including the Southern Kings in South Africa, have had their own unique set of challenges. The Sunwolves have had their share but are catching up quickly. Led by Mark Hammett, they may well surprise, but it is a medium- to long-term project, rather than expecting success from day one.
RW: The Jaguares are the first professional rugby team to be based in Argentina. How does the side fit in with the country’s amateur foundations?
GP: This is an important moment. We want anything that can boost the profile of the game to attract new fans, players, men, women and children, coaches and referees. We want to create a spectacle that is appealing and entertaining. But we need to protect the strength of the amateur game, the golden nugget of Argentine rugby, to ensure that is enhanced and not diminished.
RW: You’re a proud New Zealander but as the head of a rival union, after the All Blacks’ back-to-back World Cups, is their dominance a concern?
GP: There is no doubt they are at the pinnacle but all major sports have an equivalent. I’m not concerned at all – you always want a benchmark to aspire to, while we all try to improve and knock them off their perch.
RW: Can Argentina register a first-ever win over New Zealand in the next four-year cycle before the 2019 World Cup?
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GP: It will be tough but we would love to have our maiden victory over the All Blacks. Everyone involved in Argentina rugby will be working hard to achieve that goal.
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