Agustin Pichot will stand against incumbent Bill Beaumont for the top job in World Rugby. The former Argentina international is determined to introduce change into the game and make it a more global sport. The election results will be announced on May 12. Pichot spoke to ESPN’s Tom Hamilton to discuss his vision for the future of rugby.
Why did decide to stand for this post and try to become chairman of World Rugby?
I think we’ve discussed at length every time you’ve seen me. It’s just my passion for the game and the transformation that the game needs is what I take as a responsiblity. I’ve played the game not so long and I’ve had the same challenges that we have now and not too many things have changed to be honest. Most of the guys in the council have been in the system for 20-30 years and ever since I arrived, I’ve tried to be respectful. If things don’t happen then you get into the comfort zone and I think in rugby, we haven’t sped up to the way rugby has changed since 1995. I had two options: I could just be a heat in the seat, just sit there and fly around the world in business or first class, and sit in royal boxes. Or I said I’m going to give it a shot and see if we can modernise the game. and if not, then I’ll go home, it’s very simple.
I achieved what I wanted to in my life and I don’t want to sound arrogant but I wanted to be the best player I could’ve been for Argentina. Then, I wanted to be the best board member for Argentina because we needed a change and then for the Americas where we put Vancouver in the sevens and we change a lot of things and then I decide to become part of World Rugby. Then Bernard Lapasset asked me to run with him and then Bill asked me to run with him. I told Bernard that we need to line up with the more established unions and try to change. I told Bill that I will go with him but we need start to look at things differently and it started very well. We changed regulations, eligibility and we pushed a lot of things that needed to be pushed. But when we started to touch on the more sensitive part of the game like the global calendar and women’s game, the regional sevens then things started to get a bit more edgy. By August, I decided not to break ranks, I stayed and enjoyed the Rugby World Cup where Japan did an amazing job. I didn’t leave anything until the last minute because I thought the elections would be postponed due to Covid-19.
How can you solve a problem like the global calendar?
You need to take to the right stakeholders. You have the players, the private equity, the owners of the clubs, then the unions and others who need to give you feedback. All of these things have to be addressed. With this July window looking like it’s going to be cancelled, it’s a question of working with each other and that comes down to a different mindset. It’s not about World Rugby dictating and telling everyone else what to do, this is different, you need to be part of that strategy and help the game grow in a global aspect. You need to rethink what is the purpose of World Rugby, it’s not about telling Six Nations or SANZAAR how to do their products, it’s about listening and working on how we can do it together.
Agustin Pichot is confident that he can improve rugby globally if elected next month. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
How would you plan to get the clubs onside and break down the impasse between club and country?
You don’t have to decide whether a player plays with his country or not, that’s not right. You don’t have to decide if you get a Fijian to play for his country or keep his salary with the club. We need to help that player not make that decision. Look at football, where there is a trust between Barcelona and Argentina with Messi. When he is not well, they do not play him. That’s the level of communication. you have to have with the clubs. The clubs are a very important part of the economy of World Rugby and the standards of the game. We need to engage them regularly. It’s a mindset situation.
Do you think that rugby has been too hamstrung by personal interests in the past?
But that’s reality. It’s like my father when he told me not to play professional rugby because it’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong. There’s a perception that owners and business people are wrong for the game, what do we want for the game? We have to make sure that we lead that as a governing body. If private equity is part of the game. Nigel Wray probably had some things to give to England Rugby because he had great players playing for him. Regardless of the salaries and all the things that happened. Or Bruce Craig, I’m sure he wants the best for his club and he wants those players to play internationally because he cares about them. There’s no such thing that they want to go against the international game. Yes, you have a lot of self interest like you have in the nations, all of us have some self interest when you represent your countries because it’s the nature of the game so the owners will have self interest because they put the money in. This is about the mindset that you need to change.
How about the revenue sharing models that needs to be changed to make it more equitable and bringing in meritocratic systems for the Six Nations and Rugby Championship?
It’s an equal investment mindset. When you talk about revenue share, it looks like the Robin Hood story where you steal from the rich to give to the poor. I want the Six Nations to be as big as they can be but it needs the whole system. It’s not right if there’s such a difference between countries and not right having this in the same World Cup. You need to have some base level and that’s when you start to allocate the investment in different ways that are more equal towards the global game. You also need investment in the women’s game and the sevens, you need to take care of many investments to grow the game.
With the global pandemic going on at the moment, there’s a lot of financial uncertainty in the game like the rest of the world. Is one of the main priorities to improve these situations for the unions and make it more sustainable?
Right now, you have a boat for all the communities, not just rugby that have been hit by a massive pandemic and the boat is hit all over the place, with water all over the place. It depends on how fast you can carry those holes and just keep that boat afloat and then to reach the shore. We need to address what the holes are. With rugby, you’re trying for water not to get in but it’s getting in fast. That’s something that rugby cannot handle. If the government tells you that you’re in a lockdown then there’s nothing you can do. Rugby, the cinema, the butchers and big businesses are all doing the same. Once everything is back to normal then you cna build a bigger and better strategy to implement in rugby.
How big of a priority is it to expand the game into Asia and the US. And how important is it to improve the women’s game and sevens?
I helped Bernard to go to the Olympic Games because we believed that the growth there would be huge. The Olympics are a wonderful thing that happened to rugby despite push back from some conservative unions. We have to trust our regions like Asia and Africa to help and give us the different investment plans to go there and they know their own places better than we do. We need to address that and help it grow.
Do you the Six Nations and SANZAAR hold too much power in the game?
I don’t know if it’s too much power but they have very good commercial products. When you speak to people like Gareth Davies and others in the boards then it’s a power thing but in the right way i think people think we need a more global game.
Agustin Pichot told ESPN that he is looking to change the mindset in order to improve the game of rugby. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Where do you stand on private investment?
Private equity always come in at a cost and it’s a business. With injections of capital, I’m a business guy, I know what it means and I know the risk of doing that. It’s a question of what do you need them for? The Six Nations had a good year with them and there’s a reason why and I would also be happy to engage with them. If it helps the global game. I don’t think World Rugby as it stands needs private equity as an organisation. It’s the approach, what is the outcome and what is the business plan?
Do you think simplifying the law book of rugby will make it easier to make the game more accessible for new fans?
I’m from a football country. Let’s talk about the games themselves. One is very simple and the other is a little more complex. For a boy or a girl to go out and play rugby, it’s more complex. We have to make sure that the game is simple as it can be without changing the game, and that’s the difficult task. A month ago, I spoke to coach of the All Blacks, Argentina and asked guys, how can we explore this? The experienced coaches and players along with amateur coaches are the only ones who can recommend change. If you have an U19 coach not only look at the speed of the breakdown from professionals but also seeing how it can work at an U19 match. That’s something that we have to do. It’s like an innovation lab. I think we need to have a discussion because the breakdown is very difficult to referee. It’s not about changing the laws, it’s about what you want from the outcome of that situation.
Speaking about innovation, what about the idea of bringing in a new rugby computer game similar to the famous Jonah Lomu one back in the day in order to bring in a younger audience. How much of that is in your vision?
But, maybe in 10 years it’s not a computer but how you interact with a screen in your eye or sending you pictures somehow. A hologram of players in your living room, I don’t know. That’s the mindset of how you embrace technology and rugby is there on the front foot. If it’s a combination of a club working with Fortnite for example or a world rugby FIFA-like game. We need to think of that and address the fans, the young fans and we haven’t done that. If you look at the average fan of rugby, it’s over 50 white males. We talk about a global game but what about the rest? I don’t think we’re targetting the rest of the world and that’s why I put there in one of my manifestos that’s what we need to explore. We’ve been in a revolution during the digital era. I’ve seen it in my house where my daughters are going to school and having virtual lectures.
Why should the sport opt for you?
We need to modernise the game and make it more equal for women and men all over the world. I love the game and I hope I can start that change.