As a superlative scrumhalf for Argentina’s rugby union team from 1995 to 2008, Agustín Pichot was known for his ability to run a game. Now this 45-year-old player-turned-administrator may be on the brink of earning the right to run the world game.
Pichot’s unheralded announcement on April 12 that he would contest the chairmanship of World Rugby with the 68-year-old incumbent Sir Bill Beaumont - who would otherwise have advanced unchallenged for a second four-year stint - has energised debate about the future of the sport.
The election, by private ballot, begins tomorrow, with all 51 votes due to be cast by Thursday - although the official result will only be announced by World Rugby on May 12 via an online annual Council meeting.
But from being a self-acknowledged outsider, the personable Argentinian with a global vision for the game appears to have edged into a position as a genuine challenger on the brink of voting itself, with the key development being a reported fracturing of the Six Nations bloc vote.
A total of 30 of the 51 votes are allocated to the 10 Tier 1 unions in the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, another two each to the six regional associations - Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, North plus Central America and South America - plus two for Japan and one each for seven unions - Canada, the United States, Uruguay, Georgia, Romania, Samoa and Fiji.
On Wednesday, Pichot told the Rugby Union Weekly podcast that he was starting 20 votes to 14 down - counting on the 12 votes held by South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and his native Argentina as part of the SANZAAR group, plus the two votes held by South America, but also calculating that the Six Nations - each with three votes - would vote en masse for Sir Bill along with Europe, which carries two votes.
Since then, however, the Daily Mail has reported that doubts have arisen over the security of the Irish and Welsh votes for the affable and capable Sir Bill, a former British and Irish Lion who in 1980 led England to their first Five Nations grand slam for 23 years.
Ireland, it is suggested, still carries resentment over the way in which last-minute wheeler-dealing from Bernard Laporte - who is running to be Beaumont’s vice-chairman - saw it lose out to France over the hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Meanwhile Wales - revealed by Pichot this week as the only one of the Six Nations countries to reply to an email outlining his radical manifesto - is reported to be impressed by the vibrant Argentinian’s candidacy and plans for the game.
Speaking to insidethegames yesterday from his home in Buenos Aires, where he is in COVID-19 lockdown with his family, Pichot acknowledged the reports about the possibility of a Welsh and-or Irish change of heart, but played the safest of short passes in response, commenting: "I am happy that they read and understood the manifesto. It’s for all nations and will be a great change for sport. For all, a global and more equal game."
Pichot has been equally circumspect about avoiding making obvious political capital by commenting on the recent controversy over Fiji Rugby Union (FRU) chairman Ratu Vilikesa Bulewa Francis Kean, who was removed from the World Rugby Council after allegations of homophobia and discrimination came to light. The FRU seconded Beaumont’s nomination, while Laporte's French Rugby Federation seconded Kean's nomination for the Executive Committee election.
Pichot served as Sir Bill's vice-chairman once the latter took up office in 2016, but while he is steadfast in his respect for the Englishman, he is frank about the fact that they ended up with diverging views over the nature and pace of change in the game.
Having worked with the former World Rugby chairman, France’s Bernard Lapasset - currently co-chairman of the Paris 2024 Organising Committee - to introduce sevens rugby to the Olympics at Rio 2016, Pichot admits he became frustrated by the lack of subsequent movement within rugby union during his tenure as vice-chairman.
Chief among his frustrations was the failure to deliver the proposed Nations Championship concept last year, a vision he had championed which would have entailed a major revision of the game’s global calendar, with countries from the northern and southern hemispheres competing in three leagues of 12 teams, with promotion and relegation between each league.
The model was criticised by the International Rugby Players Council, and the resistance to the idea of relegation and promotion from the two main rugby power blocks - the Six Nations and SANZAAR's Rugby Championship.
It remains a key point in Pichot’s campaign and philosophy that a pathway must be created to allow lower-tier countries to rise by merit, even at the expense of established nations.
Pichot has also questioned the voting process itself, saying that he believes voting should be open rather than private, and criticised the relative weight of voting power amongst nations.
"We talk about values, but why do we have 30 of the 51 votes split between 10 nations? That is not the democracy of the 21st century," he told the BBC.
"Fiji has one vote and Argentina has three, why? Every kid in the world would ask you - 'why?'
"I will challenge that. I am not saying everyone should have three votes, but I am saying that type of progress has to be done to make an equal game."
Asked by insidethegames if he felt the changes he has proposed to the game were inevitable - even if he may not get the chance to set them in motion on this occasion - he responded: "The world this last two weeks has clearly expressed that. And I believe in it also."
The longstanding circumstance of the Tier 1 nations carrying three votes each begs the obvious question regarding change - will turkeys ever vote for Christmas?
To this Pichot responded, "I believe always in a democratic system with integrity. I hope they can see that I want the best for them as well."
Explaining how his current challenge came about, he spoke of a feeling of "being stopped" in his efforts to effect change.
"Things started to get complicated, and started not to happen. The Nations Championship was the main idea that was being stopped.
"At some stage of the last 18 months the drive for changing things started to slow and when we needed to make more equal changes and to speed up things, I felt that I was being slowed and some established countries were looking at themselves and not the big picture.
"I decided not to break ranks and not do politics in the World Cup. But months later when South Africa, the last world champions, Australia, New Zealand and Asia decided to back my leadership; and the other side decided to go in the patronising block - I decided to go for it."
Asia’s support for Pichot’s candidacy was officially confirmed yesterday as the member unions of Asia Rugby gave him 24 votes of support in an internal poll, with two unions voting for Sir Bill and two abstaining.
With those two Asia Rugby votes guaranteed, Pichot is now looking for the other two Asian votes held by Japan, which hosted the 2019 Rugby World Cup with such spectacular success.
The two votes held by Rugby Africa are also of key importance to his campaign. Plans to create wider competition pathways in these two continents are a hugely important part of Pichot's manifesto.
"I have a lot of optimism in Asia," he previously told the South China Morning Post.
"It is a massive place for growth. I think the future [for rugby] long term is in Asia and Africa. If you look at the numbers there are countries we haven’t explored and I think it will be great to look at how we can be better there. We haven’t had the focus, we’ve been obsessed with the professional game in the established nations."
Speaking last weekend on BBC 5 Live, Sir Bill acknowledged that the current COVID-19 crisis would create a new climate within the game once it resumes.
"There is a real feeling I get now that there will be some variant of the Nations Championship that will come back on the table," he said.
So did that make Sir Bill the new change candidate?
"I have led and will continue to push the idea of integrity and global equality," Pichot responded. "The reason I decided not to continue with the same ways, is because you will always have the same outcome. So I want to transform the game and their mindset."
Asked about whether the biggest sticking point to his global vision so far had been the fear of relegation from teams established in the northern and southern power blocks who do not trust the appeal or quality of the Tier 2 game, he replied that it is "not about looking at details... relegation and promotion or money income for some and not others; it’s a bigger picture.
"It’s the world, the global game. Equality, listening to the players, investing more in emergent nations; listening more to our athletes. It is not about paying lip service to it to make votes; it’s doing that - as I have been since I started with Bernard Lapasset bringing rugby back to the Olympic Games."
Pichot’s vision of the game’s future involves using the Olympic Movement to help expand the game worldwide, especially in Asia, Africa and South America.
Key to this will be the creation of new competitions for men and women, with sevens rugby offering a pathway towards elite competition at the Games.
But he also wants to create regional 15-a-side tournaments offering teams the chance of playing more regularly and at a higher standard.
To the question of how he would use the Olympic Movement to help expand the game, Pichot told insidethegames it had already made the sport stronger.
"When Bernard Lapasset, one of my mentors, asked me to join the campaign for bringing back rugby to the Olympic Games, I thought that it would be amazing for the growth, even if we had a lot of resistance from some conservatives unions," he said.
"We decided to go for that amazing process and learnt about the Movement and what it represented.
"Being part of the Olympic family has made our sport bigger and given the opportunity to many nations to dream big. And to their players a chance to be Olympians."
Presumably it is the relative simplicity and directness of sevens rugby which makes it the most practicable option of developing the game worldwide?
"Exactly," Pichot agreed. "We have been working with the regions to evaluate more tournaments that can then qualify for the series and ultimately to an Olympic Games - the dream of many of our athletes round the world that in other ways they couldn’t have.
"We need to build a solid plan with the regions - defining what’s best for them and giving them support. Sevens is a great entry point and the Olympic Games provides a clear pathway."
One of the most high-profile names to express public support for Pichot’s candidacy is the former England centre Sir Clive Woodward, who steered England to their World Cup win in 2003.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Sir Clive said: "I wonder if all those voting for the chairmanship of World Rugby on Sunday realise the great gift and opportunity they have - or what a pivotal moment for the game this is.
"Proceed with the international closed shop - which rugby has been for a century or more - and the game we love could be in very deep trouble.
"But if we look to change and embrace a new mindset, there is the opportunity to grow and flourish.
"This is not the time to be voting for narrow self-interest, which is why it was so disappointing - shocking, actually - that only one of the Six Nations bothered to reply to Gus Pichot when he personally emailed all the CEOs with his manifesto for the future."
Sir Clive goes on to invite delegates to "make a once-in-a-lifetime decision for the good of World Rugby."
He enjoins those involved in the election to vote for relegation and promotion, saying: "The absence of promotion and relegation will eventually kill the Test game. It has already killed continental European rugby because Georgia, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Romania and Germany have nowhere to go. They can be relegated but not promoted.
"It’s the same in the southern hemisphere. Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Japan have nowhere to go. The absence of promotion and relegation is diminishing the Six Nations and Rugby Championship…
"Two global annual tournaments - one in Europe, one in the Pacific - with promotion and relegation would ignite the game and bring full houses for every match."
Sir Clive also, like Pichot, questions the allocation of votes per nation, claiming that the "extraordinary perversion of democracy and good governance at World Rugby is alarming."
“Ten nations - the Six Nations and the four Rugby Championship teams - have three votes each and the other 70-plus rugby nations have 21 between them.
"Italy, ranked 14th in the world, have three votes yet Japan (ninth) have two and Georgia (12th) just one. Why has this been allowed to continue? Who governs rugby - the world governing body or a cabal of 10 nations?"
The endorsement did not go unnoticed. Pichot told insidethegames: "I have always respected Sir Clive; what he achieved and his conduct in rugby have always had my respect."
One of Pichot’s favourite figures of speech is to use the idea of the "kid down the road" when it comes to making an admittedly complex game understandable. It seems a simple vision - why should it be complex?
"The game is simple," he responded. "The game should represent every boy or girl that decides to play or that loves the game. We have an amazing sport, great values and we have to be dedicating our effort to make the game better for those kids down the road that love the game - pure for enjoyment and love."
But against that vision is the harsh truth that, essentially, rugby union is still governed by groups of vested interests, north and south. What does Pichot believe will prove the tipping point to the wider vision and generosity of which he has spoken?
"The whole mindset of the world will change after COVID-19," he said. "You might think that people will fall into a more conservative way of thinking, but I still think this will change and reset.
"This COVID-19 will find us much more human. We will listen more, look around more and take care more for other. It’s a great moment to do something global, equal and just."
insidethegames sought to speak to Sir Bill, but the Rugby Football Union was unable to make him available for comment.
Both he and Pichot have expressed the desire to promote the second-tier nations.
Sir Bill told BBC 5 Live that he wanted to get a "better global calendar," adding: "When I look back over the last four years there are plenty of things that I think have been good. We have over 30 per cent of our Council women, and we have the law changes we have done around the tackle for instance.
"[But going forward] I just think [the priorities are] the Nations Cup and the global season, but also expanding this game, and taking this game out to areas where we haven't been strong.
"We have to make our game accessible to anybody."
Both candidates have signed up to this idea; it is a question of which route to take - the well-beaten path, or the road less travelled.