Will Argentine rugby be willing to reap the benefits of 2012?
On 18 August 2012 the Argentine national rugby team, los Pumas, will play South Africa in Cape Town, an event that will mark their long-awaited entry into an annual international tournament.
Until now, Argentina has been the only high performance national team to have never competed in a yearly international tournament. In Europe, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales compete in the Six Nations; while in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa have until now participated in the Tri Nations.
The admission of the Pumas into the Rugby Championship, which will pit them against three of the world’s elite teams – New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, ranked first, second, and fourth, respectively – will, then, be a historic moment of the development of rugby in Argentina.
But to what extent will the Argentine rugby authorities, the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR – Argentine Rugby Union), be willing the make the most of what 2012 will bring? If they are, this year has the potential to usher in a revolution for rugby in Latin America.
Most evidently, the expansion of the southern hemisphere tournament will give fresh blood to a national team that, despite the lack of opportunity to play on a regular basis, has consistently proven itself capable on competing on the international stage against the world’s leading teams. Indeed, its recent success has seen the Pumas rise to eighth in the world.
At the 2007 Rugby World Cup (RWC) in France, the Pumas had arguably been the team of the tournament. To most people’s surprise the Argentines came away with the bronze medal, humiliating the hosts in the opening match of the tournament and in the third/fourth-place playoff.
At last year’s RWC, they reached the quarterfinals where they were beaten 33-10 by New Zealand, the hosts and eventual champions. In reaching the knockout stages, the Pumas had sent Scotland home, and their narrow 13-9 defeat to England in their opening match set the tone for the 2003 champions’ lacklustre tournament.
And so, with the formal launch of the Rugby Championship (popularly known as the Four Nations) confirmed in November 2011, the four teams will now play on a home and away basis – meaning six matches per team, 12 overall – every year from mid-August to mid-October.
Further, it will raise the status of national rugby within Argentine society. The Pumas’ home fixtures in 2012 are to take place outside Buenos Aires – in Mendoza, La Plata, and Rosario – pointing to an effort to extend the exposure of international rugby around the country, which will go some way to increasing the 100,000 registered players of the game.
Nevertheless, the sectors that could feel the greatest impact of Argentina’s place in the Rugby Championship go deeper than the Pumas. The likelihood of this happening, however, will depend on the UAR’s willingness to change the long-established structures of domestic rugby.
While the rest of the rugby-playing world turned professional in 1992, Argentina’s domestic leagues have remained amateur. As a result, the vast majority of its top players have left the country to play in the some of the world’s leading, professional, clubs. One might argue, then, that the Pumas’ international success has been developed abroad.
What is more, it is this situation that has arguably delayed Argentina’s entry into a regular tournament. As such, the Pumas’ admission into the Rugby Championship hinged on the participation of its top players. With 23 out of a 30-player squad contracted to European clubs, the tournament’s schedule overlaps with the beginning of the beginning of the season in the northern hemisphere.
Measures to overcome this stumbling block were taken during the talks between the International Rugby Board (IRB), SANZAR – a consortium of representatives from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, who until now have organised the Tri Nations – and the UAR, which oversaw the Pumas’ admission into the tournament.
In order to ensure the presence of the Pumas’ first team, the IRB agreed to amend Regulation 9 of the Game of Rugby, following a request from the UAR and SANZAR. The amendment, confirmed in November 2008, means clubs now must release players for international duty between late August and early October.
Although this frees up those Argentines that play their club rugby in the north, it will do little to quell the brain drain that has afflicted Argentine rugby for many years. The UAR’s continued commitment to amateur leagues means Argentine clubs simply cannot compete with the world’s richest clubs in Europe and the SANZAR countries.
Were the UAR willing to relinquish their current loyalties, the effects could be nothing short of revolutionary, not just for Argentina, but rugby throughout the region.
Aside from the obvious ability to retain more of the Pumas starting line-up at home, the UAR could exploit its new international position to promote Argentine club rugby.
SANZAR has already expressed its willingness to expand the Super 15 – a transnational league, played between teams from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia – and integrate Argentine teams in the future. The chance for non-international players to cut their teeth alongside and against those who feature in the Rugby Championship would undoubtedly have an incremental effect on the talent pool that feeds into the national team. With more players competing at a higher level, this can only be beneficial for the Pumas’ selectors.
Furthermore, the professionalisation of domestic leagues in Argentina could have an important regional impact. Just as the top Argentine players were able to develop into world-class competitors at foreign clubs, this process could be replicated for the region’s other rugby-playing nations.
With the region’s top players able to compete against the some of the world’s best, the future will hopefully see more Latin American teams qualifying to the RWC.
This is not to say that the UAR has completely rested on its laurels; on the one hand, the UAR has recognised the importance of retaining its talent at home, which has led to something of a third-way approach to professionalisation.
Rather than allowing domestic clubs contract and pay their players, professional players are employed by the UAR itself. In February 2009, it announced that it had contracted 31 local players who would receive AR$ 2,300 pesos a month (US$ 655/GB£ 452).
Moreover, there is evidence that it has been quick to utilise its new position in world rugby to develop the game across the region.
This year, for the first time, the Campeonato Argentino, an annual tournament which usually features the teams of the 24 provinces that make up the Argentine Rugby Union, will include the national teams of Uruguay – the only other Latin American country to qualify for the RWC – Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay.
With this enormously positive step, the UAR appears willing to afford its neighbours the opportunity at much-needed regular competition – for which it had to work so hard to achieve. If this year’s Campeonato proves successful, the inclusion of these four national teams may well continue to open the door for others across the continent, such as Peru and Colombia, who both have burgeoning teams.
Nevertheless, these are, for the moment, merely baby steps. If the UAR is able to grasp the nettle of professional domestic leagues in the future, and thus reap all the potential benefits this year offers, it would lay the foundations for an exciting future for rugby throughout Latin America.