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Graham Jenkins
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Graham Jenkins is a former senior editor of ESPNscrum
The Rugby Championship
Dreams come true for Pichot and Pumas
Graham Jenkins
August 14, 2012
Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot salutes the crowd, France v Argentina, Rugby World Cup 3rd/4th play-off, Parc des Princes, Paris, France, October 19, 2007
SANZAR chief executive Greg Peters insists that Argentina's inclusion in the Rugby Championship woul not have happened without former Pumas' international Agustin Pichot © PA Photos
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From the day a certain William Webb Ellis allegedly "took the ball in his arms and ran with it" to the dawn of the World Cup and the belated decision to embrace professionalism, rugby union has witnessed many significant days in its storied history and this weekend will see another to rank alongside those milestones as Argentina make their long-awaited Rugby Championship bow.

The Pumas' clash with South Africa in Cape Town represents the end of an epic battle for a place at rugby's top table having long been the only team among the world's leading nations denied a regular competition to cement the promise so often shown at the World Cup.

The significance of the dawn of a new era cannot be underestimated. This is not another European nation joining the battle for northern hemisphere supremacy as Italy did at the turn of the century; this is the elite game extending its global footprint into a new continent where new fans, experiences and possibly untold riches await.

"It is an amazing step for Argentina and world rugby in general," said SANZAR chief executive Greg Peters who insists that their inclusion in the Rugby Championship "wouldn't have happened" if it wasn't for the "passion, energy and understanding" of former Pumas scrum-half and peerless ambassador for Argentinian rugby - Agustin Pichot.

The 37-year-old was so often the driving force of the Pumas throughout a 71-Test career, that included a memorable win over England at Twickenham and most famously a third place finish at the 2007 World Cup that was capped with victory over France in the play-off - their second victory over the hosts in the tournament, and it is that same tenacity that has propelled Argentina onto the Rugby Championship stage.

"I had no chance to escape this challenge, I had to make this happen," said Pichot, who took it upon himself to spearhead the Pumas' quest for the chance to compete with the best on an annual basis after hanging up his boots in the wake of the Pumas' historic exploits in five years ago.

Despite their dazzling display at the sport's showpiece event and growing public sympathy for their plight, the road to Cape Town where they will make their Championship debut has not been straight forward.

"As you know in every game of rugby, you have a first half and a second half and ups and downs," explained Pichot as he relived the endless air miles and meetings required to convince the powers that be that his country were worthy of their new-found status. "There are always obstacles to overcome in order to move forward. At one stage the door was closed, but as there is in a game, there were openings where we could play and have a chance of scoring. Argentina will always have a desire to thrive and move forward and that's what we did, we carried on, we fought, we remained convinced of it and finally we got it."

 
"We are not the best side in the world and we have a long way to go but I think the fans and everyone in Argentina will be behind them 100%"
 

Pichot's faith extends to the Pumas' ability to make an impression on the new-look Tri-Nations contest. The timing of the competition means the majority of their European-based players are effectively in pre-season mode but their former talisman insists they will by no means be make-weights.

"I think Argentina will give what it always gives at World Cups and every time we play - 100%," said the infectious Pichot. "We are not the best side in the world and we have a long way to go but I think the fans and everyone in Argentina will be behind them 100%.

"They have been training very hard and they had the rest period in June but we are trying this new season layout and we have no choice. It is not like we could have done it any other way. Is it the best time of the year for us? No. Did we have another option? No. We are doing the best that we can. I have a lot of confidence in the players and the coaching staff so hopefully it will be a good tournament and for me that means going out and performing against the rest in the world week in and week out."

The excitement surrounding the Pumas' elevation is set to reach a whole new level later this month when a packed house at the Estadio Mundialista Malvinas Argentinas in Mendoza play host to the return clash against the Boks. "The following week down in Mendoza will be really special," enthused Peters. "I have no doubt that the colour and passion that Argentina will bring to the Rugby Championship will be in full view.

"The UAR (Argentine Rugby Union) will produce events that are spectacular and particular to their character and nature the like of which you would not see in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. They will bring a new dimension to the competition, freshen it up and give it new vigour."

But will that unyielding support be rewarded in terms of results? Veteran Argentinian rugby journalist Frankie Deges is not convinced and fears the intensity of the opposition and the games will take its toll. "We will be competitive but we will not win many games," he predicted. "The thing that is difficult to say is what the team will look like in a few weeks because of the wear and tear. These guys play top level rugby in Europe and will have prepared accordingly but weeks off between games will all be about recovery and it is hard to say how everyone will be affected.

"People say the big chance for us is the game against Australia in the last round but that will be after five very tough games. Our chances would be good if that was the second or third game, but it may well end up being a case of last man standing."

Pumas coach Santiago Phelan is also playing down his side's chances - despite the notable addition of former All Blacks coach Graham Henry to his coaching armoury ahead of the Championship. "He's saying that we are here to learn and that it's not about winning it is about performing," added Deges who agreed with the coach's chosen stance. "At this moment in time that is what they should be saying. Why say we are going to beat the All Blacks because they are definitely going to stumble."

The Rugby Championship trophy is unveiled, Sydney, Australia, August 9, 2012
Argentina, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand will contest the first-ever Rugby Championship © SANZAR
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The Pumas' introduction to the Championship comes a little late for Pichot and the majority of those players that shook up the world order in 2007 including Felipe Contepomi, who has chosen to draw a line under his international career, but their contribution lives on in the memory.

"These guys are the lucky ones," Deges said of the current squad. "There is a good sense of history and these guys are aware they have the privilege of playing in this team at this time - but it is the result of a lot of effort from previous generations."

Deges is aware more than most of Pichot's contribution having reported on the rollercoaster ride that has been their journey to this point. "I don't think we would have been here today unless he had taken the bull by the horns and said let's do this. He's been crucial and very influential. He's got a way of convincing people and it resulted in what is a victory for many. There is a real sense of pride among those who will be playing and those who are not playing anymore."

Unsurprisingly the idea of tackling the sport's finest has Pichot wishing he was still in the thick of the action. "I would have loved to have played in the Rugby Championship and be given the chance to play against the best all the time," he said. "During my playing days I only played against George Gregan and Joost [van der Westhuizen] and [Justin] Marshall every once in a while. I would have loved to have played against the best in the world week in, week out but that is now the opportunity given to this generation."

Instead of being the beating heart of the Pumas, Pichot must make do with being the catalyst for Argentinian rugby off-the-field where arguably he continues to wield even more influence. Laying the foundation for a Super Rugby franchise in Argentina looms large on his agenda as does a bid to bring the World Cup to the country in 2023 or 2027. As a result it appears neither Argentinian rugby nor Pichot are likely to dwell on this latest historic achievement.

"Of course I will be proud and very emotional regardless of the result as it is very challenging," he concluded, "but for Argentinian rugby this is just going to be a stepping stone to better days."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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