Pumas set to dine at rugby's top table
September 16, 2009
Will Pumas star Juan Martin Hernandez grace the Four Nations stage in 2012? © Getty Images
Rugby fans have had little reason to celebrate in recent months so Argentina's proposed ascent to the sport's top table is genuine reason to rejoice.
But before we heap praise on the game's powerbrokers, let's not forget the invite to join an expanded Tri-Nations competition is not only several years late but also conditional with a couple of sizeable hurdles for the Argentina Rugby Union (UAR) yet to clear if they are to line-up against their southern hemisphere rivals in 2012.
SANZAR, the umbrella body representing the big guns of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, have not exactly rolled out the red carpet by demanding Argentina have access to their best players and that they provide assurances to both the broadcasters and the money men.
The majority of the Pumas' leading players are currently playing their club rugby in Europe across the Top 14, Guinness Premiership and Magners League, and luring them back below the equator is going to require a monumental effort not to mention a huge amount of cash.
There may well be the promise of a new challenge in the expanded Super Rugby tournament but the likes of fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez, prop Marcos Ayerza and flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon are no doubt earning a pretty penny at Natal, Leicester Tigers and Stade Francais respectively and they are of an age where, form allowing, they will expect a similar high return for their services come 2012.
Although the IRB have promised to increase their funding to the UAR to ensure they can meet their end of the bargain that will not be an inexhaustible source of finance. The intention will be to lay the foundation for a viable financial model and as a result high-profile marquee signings could be at a premium.
There may well be scope for one or two players to remain in Europe as long as they can guarantee their release for the new 'Four Nations' but the demands of a tournament that is set to run mid-August to mid-October will require not only an understanding club but also financial compensation.
Another headache looms with the prospect of finding a new home for 20-30 Argentina-qualified players within the Super Rugby landscape. To accommodate this influx the South African, New Zealand and Australian unions are no doubt going to have to relax their rules on foreign players with the new Australia-based franchise a likely destination for many. But with that idea comes added time pressure with that new side set to make its competitive bow in early 2011.
The fact that Argentina will not be allowed to join the party until 2012 will work in the UAR's favour to a certain degree. It allows a big window to not only identify those players in Europe who they want under the Union's employment come 2012 but also nurture the next generation of players from the ranks of the second tier Argentina Jaguars, who currently contest the Churchill Cup and the U20s set-up, with the country's youngsters having claimed 11th place at this year's IRB Junior World Championship.
In addition the Argentine 7s side caught the eye again in the latest IRB Sevens Series - claiming the USA 7s title - and could well be another fertile breeding ground.
The second major hurdle is arguably easier to clear. The Tri-Nations continues to deliver the odd classic and there is rarely a mis-match as you might expect when the world's best teams go head-to-head. But as attractive as games can be between these sides with their proud records on the line, three teams can only offer a limited amount of drama no matter how stellar the cast.
Add fresh impetus in the form of the Pumas, who bring a healthy dose of passion and their own individual approach to the game, and you have an exciting new element that is sure to attract broadcasters. Throw in an energised group of fans, yet more colourful destinations and the exposure to a whole new TV audience and there is further cause for celebration.
The Pumas' claims for regular competition against the best of the rest have gathered significant momentum over the last few years and reached a head at Rugby World Cup 2007 where they battled to an historic third place finish. On the back of that headline-grabbing run, where they accounted for France (twice), Ireland and Scotland amongst others, they submitted an application to join the Six Nations in 2007 hoping to capitalise on their success and the location of their players.
But the International Rugby Board quickly stepped in to insist that they pursued a future in the southern hemisphere. Since that date, in late 2007, the Pumas have been aware that the Tri-Nations held the key to their future but sadly it has taken almost two years for an official invite to be forthcoming and they face potentially another three years before they kick a ball in anger in a new-look tournament.
Commercial and logistical complications have been cited as the reason for the delay in what let's not forget is a conditional invite. The current SANZAR broadcasting deal with News Corporation and SuperSport concludes with the 2010 season with no new deal beyond that yet agreed.
It is hoped that in a strained economic environment the prospect of Argentina joining the Tri-Nations will carry some weight in negotiations with the calendar constraints surrounding the next global showpiece in 2011 delaying their proposed entry yet another year.
There can be no doubt that Argentina deserve their place in a regular elite competition and they must be praised for making such an impression on the world stage whilst working under the existing pressures. Ranked fourth in the world as recently as last year, they may have slipped to sixth but victory over England in the summer underlined their growing stature in the world game.
And they will no doubt make more waves when they take their place alongside their southern hemisphere rivals on the battlefields of Europe later this year.
Argentina against the Tri-Nations:
New Zealand - P17 W0 D1 L16
Australia - P17 W4 D1 L12
South Africa - P13 W0 D0 L13