Former Argentina scrum-half turned World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot retained top spot in Rugby World’s countdown of the 50 most influential people in the sport
Agustin Pichot the most influential person in rugby in 2018
Last October, the cover of Enganche, the sports supplement of the Pagina 12 newspaper in Buenos Aires, featured a close-up photo of Agustin Pichot alongside the words El Lider. The leader.
In the strictest terms, Pichot isn’t the leader. Bill Beaumont is the chairman of World Rugby, with the former Argentina scrum-half and captain his No 2. Yet so much of what Pichot says and does marks him out as the leading figure in rugby right now – and the fact he isn’t the official ‘commander in chief’ gives him the freedom to be more outspoken and stir the proverbial pot.
He isn’t constrained by the constant need for diplomacy and doesn’t feel tied to playing the political game in traditional fashion. It’s not about being popular but doing what he thinks is right to make rugby better. And he is happy to colour outside the lines to bring about change.
All those reasons and more are why Pichot has retained top spot in Rugby World magazine’s list of rugby’s most influential people.
A lot has happened in the game in the two years since we last compiled this countdown of 50 heavy hitters, but no one has shown the same determination and vigour as the 44-year-old Pumas legend to drive rugby forward. He’s not so much pushing for progress as taking a piledriver to obstacles in the road ahead. Yet he has discovered that one voice is not always loud enough to shatter the game’s glass ceiling.
Indeed, rugby needs more like him. More people willing to speak out, to put benefits for all above self-interest, to push for modernisation while staying true to rugby’s values, and who understand the intricacies of being a pro player and can work in an administrative role.
As Ben Ryan, another who is forthright in his views, says: “We have seen what a breath of fresh air Gus was when he got involved in World Rugby. Whilst he’s a uniquely talented man, if we have another half-a-dozen with similar skill-sets who are still playing, they can drive the game forward even faster.”
Too often rugby moves at the pace of those in power, the older generation to put it politely, rather than the pace of those playing the game – think Rieko Ioane or Jonny May. Pichot recogonises the need to speed things up, like he could spot when to up the tempo in a Test match. Rugby’s top brass can talk of their desire to make the sport a truly global game and how player welfare is the priority, but words won’t make that happen, actions will. Pichot is constantly on the offensive, looking to put plans into practice that can deliver results.
He did it as a player, so integral to the Argentina team that stunned France in particular and the rugby world in general to finish third at RWC 2007 – a feat that has led to the Pumas becoming part of the Rugby Championship and the Jaguares joining Super Rugby. Now he’s doing the same as an administrator.
He was central to Argentina’s integration into those two big southern hemisphere competitions, helping negotiate the tricky path between the sport’s fiercely amateur roots in his country and the need to keep pace with the modern-day professional game.
Then, within a year of he and Beaumont taking office at World Rugby, the pair had made big changes to rugby’s eligibility rules, the key one being the increase from three years to five for players to qualify to represent a country on residency. This had long been a bone of contention, people questioning how true a player’s affiliation was to their new nation after just three years and pointing to a loss of integrity in Test rugby.
The five-year rule, which comes into force in 2020, isn’t the equivalent of a magic wand being waved over those issues – Kiwi Brad Shields making his England debut this June by dint of his English parents, for example, raised eyebrows and Pichot was critical of that selection – but it was a step in the right direction, and a long overdue one at that. So a big tick for Bill and Gus there.
Then there’s the global calendar World Rugby announced for 2020-32. Again, it’s not a cure-all – there would need to be less self-serving attitudes when the game’s stakeholders meet for that – but it should lead to greater growth of the game globally. Most significantly, there will be a 39% increase in Tier One v Tier Two fixtures during that 12-year period. That’s a minimum of 110 Tests between top-tier countries and those below.
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Speak to any coach of a Tier Two nation and they highlight the need for more matches against top-quality teams to improve. With regular meaningful Tests against Tier One teams, we should see emerging nations make strides and become more competitive, thus increasing the pool of contenders at World Cups.
Wouldn’t it be great to see a Georgia or a Tonga in the semi-finals of RWC 2027? Pichot would raise a glass. That sort of progress takes time but this shift in focus of the international calendar is what is needed if rugby is to become a global sport.
Player welfare is, rightly, another big topic in rugby and while some bemoan tougher sanctions for high tackles and contact in the air, Pichot is standing firm. He wants to protect players, particularly when it comes to head injuries, and his ire is obvious when he hears anyone decrying that rugby ‘has gone soft’.
He’s not suggesting rugby loses any of its physicality, but he understands how serious the issues around concussion are and if there are ways to help reduce incidences of head injuries he’s all for it.
It would come as no surprise if the lower tackle-height laws trialled at the U20 World Cup and U20 World Trophy, as well as the Championship Cup in England later this year, come into play at senior level. It’s about moving away from habitual practices where players go into tackle situations high, increasing the risk of making contact with the ball-carrier’s head, and tough punishments are a good way to try to switch attitudes.
So Pichot and World Rugby have been busy. However, there is still so much he wants to do and not everyone moves as fast as him. He’s a man in a hurry. As he told the Telegraph earlier this year: “I get frustrated and I try to push harder. I am more anxious. I don’t like waiting.”
Or treading on eggshells. Pichot is happy to be vocal in his opinions and go against the mainstream. He might find allies nodding in agreement outside the corridors of power, but when it comes to actually implementing policies that will enforce change, those same people fall silent and prefer to toe their party’s line.
Pichot recently said: “The biggest problem – in business and in sport – is egos.” He spoke about the game facing “ruin”, international rugby being under threat financially and too much being asked of players in terms of club commitments and Test matches.
It was important that representatives of clubs and players were involved in the meeting around the global calendar, but an agreement on a season where everyone around the world plays at the same time to avoid release issues and tournament clashes is still a long way off.
The global season is rugby’s holy grail; it’s been talked about for two decades but is no closer to fruition. The clubs in England and France, which hold so much sway financially, are less willing to acquiesce on altering their seasons unless it’s to their specific benefit.
The Six Nations is another example of rugby’s inherent self-interest. Again, there has long been a campaign to introduce promotion and relegation to allow Europe’s developing nations the chance to compete in the championship.
Pichot is on the record supporting Georgia’s bid for a place in the Six Nations (and would like to see Japan in the Rugby Championship too), but those in charge of the tournament have been unwilling to look at ways to implement such an addition. Indeed, John Feehan, when serving as Six Nations chief executive (he stepped down this year), curtly said that it wasn’t the tournament’s job to grow the game.
Yes, Georgia may not be as appealing to sponsors as Italy, but an annual or biennial relegation-promotion race would certainly add drama at both ends of the table. Or a play-off between the bottom team in the Six Nations and the top side in the Rugby Europe Championship would bring in more TV money. Effectively slamming the doors on such ideas goes against rugby’s values and puts money above all else.
Arguably the biggest challenge for Pichot and those seeking changes that benefit the game long-term is the structure of World Rugby. The traditional rugby powerhouses, the Englands and New Zealands, have long had two seats on the World Rugby Council. That is now up to three, with 11 unions able to have an additional representative who is female, although there is no change in the voting rights.
In contrast, Georgia has one seat. The Pacific Islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga don’t yet have a seat at all, with Oceania Rugby representing the interests of that trio and 12 other unions in their region. With the voting powers skewed so heavily in favour of the heavyweights, it’s difficult for the smaller nations to implement change.
A shake-up is needed – and Pichot looks like just the man to lead it. He may not be the biggest but his voice is the loudest when it comes to striving to make meaningful changes for the good of the game as a whole.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of Rugby World. If you would like to buy a copy of this issue, which includes a rundown of all 50 people on our most influential list, call 01795 662976 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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