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Last Updated: Friday, 5 October 2007, 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK
Argentina's new hero
By John Inverdale
BBC Radio 4

Agustin Pichot
Pichot makes the team tick
Diego who? Argentina has a new sporting hero who has pushed rugby centre stage in the football-crazy country. Now Scotland stands in his way as he seeks greater glory.

Leadership is a singular quality, whether in the boardroom, the political arena or on the sports field.

This weekend, one of modern sport's finest leaders is dancing on the biggest stage of his career.

Agustin "Gus" Pichot will be at the base of the Argentine scrum in the World Cup quarter-final in Paris against Scotland, cajoling, encouraging, demanding, exhorting his team to achieve something that has been remained an unfulfilled dream for him and his country for decades - respect from the international rugby world.

Argentine rugby is an anachronism in the multi-million-pound world of modern rugby union. The game has been played there for nearly 150 years, taken to South America by British immigrants, largely working on the creation of a railway network.

But while the game is popular in Chile and Uruguay, it's in Argentina that it has really taken root, second only to football which envelopes the entire national psyche.

Matt Dawson
I wouldn't say we were best of friends by any stretch of the imagination
Matt Dawson

England World Cup-winner

As a consequence, it's almost impossible to over-exaggerate how remarkable it is that Sunday's big football match between River Plate and Boca Juniors - the two major football clubs in the country - has been moved to allow the nation to watch Pichot and his team in Paris.

This is Wimbledon moving the men's final to a morning or Gordon Brown shifting an election to a Friday to accommodate the first day of a Lords Test.

Gus Pichot is the face of Argentine rugby. Since the age of three, when he ran round his backyard in a leafy, middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires, he's been throwing a rugby ball around.

At the age of 19, he played in his first World Cup in South Africa, which signalled the end of amateur rugby and the dawn of the professional era. The game in Argentina was and remains resolutely amateur, so the offers to make a living from the sport were repeatedly rebuffed until his father persuaded him to go to England.

There's not much of Pichot. Barely 5ft 9ins and less than 13 stone, he's a midget in a land of giants, but what he lacks in size he more than makes up for with mouth, a constant chatterbox on and off the field, fired by a perceived sense of injustice at the way his country has been treated by the rugby elite. Leader and rebel leader when the need arises.

Dazzling smile

BBC commentator Ian Robertson recalls how he led a strike by the players after the Argentine Rugby Union went back on a pledge to give money to promising young players in 2006.

"Pichot was absolutely appalled by that decision and he led a strike to get money for the academy players so that they could be developed and be the future of the new Argentine team."

Long flowing hair, fashionably dressed, exuding charm (off the field at least) and with a dazzling smile, Pichot understands the modern value of image. Which inevitably doesn't endear him to everybody.

Matt Dawson played against Pichot for Northampton and England.

"I wouldn't say we were best of friends by any stretch of the imagination. He had a mixed review from the players. Like all scrum halves the forwards would think of them as cheeky, chirpy, arrogant, showboaters, quite annoying - but you know I've had that label as well."

Gus has often helped me unload the lorry, quite a few times, and he's served in the pasty hats
Tony Daniel

Cornish pasty supplier
Former Ireland rugby captain Keith Wood says the starkest thing about Pichot is his Corinthian spirit as one of the last of the amateurs.

"He's somehow managed to marry the blend of professionalism and professional attitude to an Argentinean team that is to all intents and purposes wholly amateur.

"That is probably the hardest thing to do, because there were great things in his amateur days and great things in his professional, but it is getting the blend right and he seems to have done that very well."

There's more to Pichot than just rugby player and rugby politician. He's a property developer, hopes to open his first hotel with its own in-house winery next year and has a vending machine business in conjunction with a former Pumas team-mate.

He's named a foundation after his father which is helping the indigenous people of Buenos Aires. And all this while pursuing his playing career in Paris with Stade Francais. But it's his people skills that set him apart - equally at home with presidents and pasty makers.

'Future politician'

During his time at Bristol, he stayed with the club's Cornish pasty supplier Tony Daniel.

"Gus has often helped me unload the lorry and he's served in the pasty hats twice. He's served in there and sometimes he's sold 3,000 a match," says Mr Daniel.

Agustin Pichot with fans
Pichot is a popular figure with fans
The only other Argentine rugby player to have had such influence on the international sporting landscape was Hugo Porta, who swapped his boots 20 years ago for a career in politics.

Don't be surprised to see Agustin Pichot in the UN in years to come, or anywhere else come to think of it.

But for the immediate future, look no further than the game in Paris.

In the pivotal position of scrum-half, Pichot will need to be at his most calm and composed if the fire within is not to self-combust and deny he and his team-mates their place at rugby's top table and their first ever World Cup semi-final.

Only after that can Pichot start fighting the bigger battles, with the international rugby authorities and maybe with the governments of the world.


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