By Rex Gowar
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina must beat England in next month’s two-test home series to restore the image formed at the 2015 World Cup and erase the memory of a poor 2016 season, former Pumas captain Agustin Pichot told Reuters.
Pichot, World Rugby’s vice-president, also said in an interview in Buenos Aires he would like to bring the 2027 World Cup to Argentina and that his country would make an exciting destination for a British and Irish Lions tour.
The June test series may not be against England’s best, who have contributed 16 players to tour New Zealand with the Lions at the same time, but Pichot said the Pumas can still expect a very strong side under Eddie Jones.
"We need to win," said Pichot. "After last year our image wasn’t great, so now we need to win and playing locally against England it’s a must.
"Eddie Jones is doing very good work. He is bringing a lot of young players, so that could be very dangerous for Argentina. Even against a non-Lions England team it’s going to be very tough."
Pichot took Argentina to the top rungs of the game with his leadership of the bronze medal-winning Pumas at the 2007 World Cup in France. He helped them find a place in the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship, and he watched proudly as they reached the semi-finals again in England two years ago.
But 2016 was a year of transition, with more disappointments than success. It left Argentina with barely two wins in nine tests and a slump to ninth in the rankings before next week’s 2019 World Cup draw in Japan, where Pichot was headed on Wednesday.
He said Argentina made no excuses for ending up in the third tier of seeds for the draw and landing in a pool that will include two top-eight teams - with the risk of missing out on the quarter-finals - but there were mitigating factors.
"After that (2015) World Cup, which was a great achievement, with the (introduction of the) Super Rugby team, there were many things that changed the reality of Argentine rugby," Pichot said.
"The difficulties of the Rugby Championship, plus Super Rugby, plus the November tour was very hard on the players and the results were not those expected," he said, considering that Argentina have a pool of around 45 players from which to pick a team for the Jaguares franchise and the Pumas.
"You have to go through this process (of change), the professionalism that is new in Argentina, to get better. You have to take into consideration that Argentina’s professional rugby started in 2016.
"The difficulty is that in Super Rugby and the Sevens series, two cross-regional and even inter-hemisphere competitions, you have to travel (huge distances) to play against professional teams."
Dealing with such demands on players is a key issue Pichot and World Rugby president Bill Beaumont have at the top of their priorities in improving the game.
"(Player safety) is a very important subject on the agenda, or maybe the most important ... regarding concussion, regarding travel," Pichot said.
"Unfortunately there are some things on the calendar that you can’t change. We discuss these issues with the players. We have a very good relationship with the International Players’ Association. The players want to play, the clubs want to make money, the international game wants to carry on. We need to work harder to see when we give the players the necessary rest so they can perform better.”
A longer term goal of Pichot’s is to bring the World Cup to Argentina, with 2027 the first realistic target.
"We are a long way towards the goal of at least having Argentina considered for a Rugby World Cup, (but) we really want that, the country needs that and I think we have a great country to host it, hopefully we can have the right bid with the government’s support," he said.
Perhaps a Lions tour of Argentina would open the eyes of British fans to how exciting a World Cup in Argentina, always a good touring destination for players, could be.
However, Pichot said the nature of such big tours and the memory of scraping a 25-25 draw with the Pumas in a one-off match in Cardiff before the Lions’ 2005 tour of New Zealand would make it difficult to set it up.
"The Lions are not going to want a hard team to get into a tour. They prefer to go into the provinces and play, that’s what I was told, so the last experience at the Millennium when we drew, I think it was not a great memory for the Lions to just do that again," he said.
"I don’t think Argentina is ready commercially to bring the sustainability that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa bring, but we’d love to host them and we have a great atmosphere that I think would be great for Lions fans and tourists."
(This version of the article corrects second paragraph to say 2027 World Cup)
(Editing by Larry King)