Pumas approaching Four Nations crossroads
October 11, 2011
Flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon, seen here on the charge against New Zealand, is one of a number of players facing an uncertain domestic future © Getty Images
For the third Rugby World Cup in four Argentina have been one of the stories of the tournament.
Again they have reached the quarter-finals at the expense of one of the old-guard home unions (Ireland in 1999 and 2007, Scotland in 2011) and the Pumas are now set to take the next step they have craved for years by joining New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the expanded Four Nations tournament in 2012.
But their introduction will force a band of players at English and French clubs to either quit international rugby or leave their European employers.
The fixture schedule for the new competition is officially under wraps until it is announced by Sanzar on October 17, but it is understood that the Pumas will make their Four Nations debut with an away match against the Springboks in South Africa on the weekend of August 18.
That is the start of an eight-week schedule of home and away fixtures between the four countries. Added to time away in the existing June and November tour windows, it would turn the popular and talented Pumas at European clubs - 23 of the 30-man squad in New Zealand - into a liability.
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty is in Auckland and will meet the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR) on October 14 to discuss when any English-based Pumas - currently Horacio Agulla (Leicester), Gonzalo Camacho (Exeter), Marcos Ayerza (Leicester), Alfredo Lalanne (London Irish) and Tomas Vallejos (Harlequins), four of whom were involved in Sunday's quarter-final with the All Blacks - would rest under the new schedule. Eighteen other Pumas are contracted to French clubs and the Four Nations' new timing from mid-August to early October clashes with the start of the English and French club seasons.
"I doubt whether an English club would contract an Argentina player just for December to May," McCafferty said. "We've been big supporters of Argentina joining the Four Nations since the IRB's Woking Forum of 2007, but we are making sure our clubs are aware that they could be losing players throughout the summer and again in the autumn. Welfare is also an issue, with players at risk of playing through our season and straight on through the summer and autumn without a rest."
The International Rugby Board (IRB) has revamped Rule 9, on player release, so that clubs must let Four Nations players go for six weekends in the eight weeks of the Four Nations. A more likely outcome is an exodus from north to south and Pumas joining existing Super Rugby teams and ultimately one of Argentina's own. The Sanzar Unions have "committed to" adding an Argentinian team to Super Rugby after 2015, according to Manuel Galindo, Argentina's chairman of high performance.
"Our idea in the future is our Union will have most of the players on contract in Argentina and only a few stars playing in Europe - about 10 would be the best." said Galindo, who has overseen the long called-for improvement in the Pumas' Test schedule, given impetus by their famous third place finish in the 2007 World Cup. Ten could be optimistic - unless of course the star men stick two fingers up to losing their lucrative club contracts and opt out of some or all Argentina's future Tests.
Asked whether the UAR would make up a player's loss in earnings if a club shows them the door, Galindo said: "That's between the player and the club. We are not going to negotiate any additional payments to the players for that."
The UAR are bound by contract to field their best team in the Four Nations, but Galindo admitted: "That's the plan - but we cannot shoot the players if they don't want to play."
Agulla, the 26-year-old Leicester wing, added: "It's going to be hard for clubs to say yes to the Argentina players. We will miss games in the [English] championship and I don't know what's going to happen. I have to talk with Leicester and see what will happen with me. Either the club accept you or you have to make a decision - playing for your country or going to Australia or New Zealand or wherever or staying in England and not playing for your country. I am still young and I want to play at a high level."
Camacho, the Harlequins winger, said there may be a compromise in which foreign-based Pumas would be excused Argentina's June Tests - this year against Italy and France (two). Galindo is understandably excited that the Pumas, building on their World Cup successes of recent years, can now go on to achieve something like their full potential.
Agustin Pichot, the former scrum-half and captain, and Les Cusworth, the ex England fly-half who is a UAR consultant, have been influential negotiators. "The current team has been part of a transition," Galindo said. "They played just 24 games in the last four years. It will be double that in the next four years. It is bound to improve their level of performance. Argentinian rugby will change completely after this, in an international context."
Unlike the home unions, who are grappling with declining playing numbers, the number of over-15 players in Argentina has increased by 20% since 2007. "We have 100,000 players, half of whom are under 15, and we will protect the old amateur club system," Galindo said. "We are happy with what we've done in this World Cup, to be among the best eight teams in the world again. We would like more."
The IRB announced in March 2010 it would provide US$10 million funding to support the Pumas' entry into the Four Nations up to 2015, in addition to the Sanzar's own funding out of their broadcast deals and other contracts.
The IRB currently annually invests close to US$2m in development and high performance programmes in Argentina. This helps fund the national High Performance Academy, the Argentina Jaguars representative team and the national Under-20s and Sevens systems, all of which underpin the Pumas in the Four Nations and Rugby World Cup.
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