Devil in the detail of the 'Treaty of Woking'
John Taylor
December 5, 2007

"If they do subsidise Argentines to stay at home the Fijians and Samoans will, quite justifiably, demand the same so that they too can upset the old order." JT reports

The Treaty of Woking hardly has the same ring as Versailles or Rome but the 'peace in our time' tone of the statement at the end of last week's IRB forum made it clear they see it as rugby's equivalent.

Now the real work begins because, as the great and the good have found before, it is easy to proclaim a new world order but much more difficult to deliver on that promise.

Top of the agenda was the Argentina problem. Their wonderful showing at the World Cup embarrassed the major nations on two fronts.

It should never have happened because a) in rugby terms Argentina is a third world country and b) their emergence as a world power has happened in spite of being treated as a third world country.

'The forum agreed that the Pumas' future lies in the southern hemisphere,' declared the Treaty with grandiose finality.

Well thank goodness for that! At least they had the foresight to reject the short term fix. The Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) had applied to become the seventh Nation in what is currently the Six Nations Championship but that was always a non-starter.

The idea of adding another six matches to the Championship would have meant two more international weekends which would have scuppered the other 'peace in our time' agreement which has only just been brokered between the English and French clubs and their national Unions.

It might have suited the current band of Argentine players who ply their trade in Europe (and have been the architects of this Argentine rugby revolution with little or no help from the UAR) but it has no long term advantages - the idea that a Pumas team playing 'home' games in Barcelona or Madrid would attract big crowds and help foster the game in Spain was always wishful thinking rather than a properly researched proposal.

Nevertheless, the statement of intent later in the 'Treaty' document will need enormous support from the IRB if it is also not to be dismissed as wishful thinking.

Pivotal to the plan for the development of Argentine rugby is creating a 'competitive professional playing structure' and the UAR 'have made a commitment to have their players contracted to the Union and for the majority of their players to be based in Argentina by 2012.'

It sounds very plausible but where is the money going to come from?

We have heard a great deal about the logistical problems of integrating Argentina into the Tri-Nations Championship - and it is a fact that they are a long way from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (it is not exactly a flip from the Antipodes to Africa) but everybody knows the real problems are financial.

The Argentine economy is one of the most unstable in the capitalist world and there is absolutely no chance of a lucrative television deal so they can bring nothing to the highly profitable SANZAR party - in fact they could ruin it, literally.

Unless, that is, the IRB steps in and subsidises Argentina's participation. But that too is fraught with problems.

How long would it have to go on? For the foreseeable future is the only honest answer.

Football rules in Buenos Aires and even with all their recent success international rugby matches are never sold out, while the Buenos Aires club scene - which would presumably be central to the new professional structure because the other provinces contribute very few players to the national team - is a throwback to English, Irish and Scottish rugby in the first half of the 20th century.

The URBA Championship is very competitive and produced 90% of the current crop of stars but it is based on long established Public School or University Old Boys teams and very elite sporting Country Clubs with a rugby section. It is very amateur, crowds are small and they certainly cannot sustain professional rugby.

Until now the UAR has also remained fiercely committed to the amateur game which is why the exodus of top players began with the likes of Diego Dominguez in the 80s and has continued apace ever since. If you could trace an Italian grandparent, as many could, you even changed nationality.

Even with subsidy players could not hope to earn the sort of salaries they do in Europe. We have seen a huge escalation in the number of 'young' SANZAR players finding their way to Britain and France so there is little chance that Argentine players will stay at home just because their country needs them.

The IRB, of course, has responsibilities to the other emerging nations as well. If they do subsidise Argentines to stay at home the Fijians and Samoans will, quite justifiably, demand the same so that they too can upset the old order. The estimated £90 million World Cup profit suddenly looks hopelessly inadequate.

Like all major treaties 'Woking' looks grand on paper but the devil is in the detail. I, for one, remain sceptical about its practicality.

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