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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 October, 2003, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
Pichot back from the brink
By Matt Majendie

Agustin Pichot
Pichot expects great things from the Pumas
By the end of the 2002/3 English domestic season, Agustin Pichot had had enough of rugby.

The Argentine scrum-half had played out the latter stages of the season with an ankle injury, relegation looming and the threat of a merger between his club Bristol and West Country rivals Bath.

Bristol failed to avoid the drop and, after that, Pichot decided it was time to move elsewhere - he joined Stade Francais - and put up his feet.

He describes his pre-season lay off, the first of his career, as being "wonderful" and is now more than ready for a World Cup campaign.

"My ankle needed a good rest. In fact, I needed a break from rugby altogether. But it's given me my zest back and I'm revelling at the chance to get playing again."

That opportunity to get back in the groove will come when Argentina face Australia in the opening game of the World Cup on Friday.

And from the kick-off, all eyes will be on Pichot, so long Pumas' lynchpin and the pin-up of South American rugby.

PICHOT FACTFILE
Born: 22/8/74
Position: Scrum-half
Team: Stade Francais
Debut: 30/4/95 v Australia
Past World Cups: 1995 and 1999

A national hero back at home and a regular candidate for sports personality of the year, he has surpassed even the country's more established footballing icons in the popularity stakes.

But at every opportunity, he turns attention away from his importance to the Pumas despite no other Argentine having made such an impact on the game.

He argued: "Our results have been good recently, we have shown we can play as a team, not just as one or two players, and the pressure is no longer just on a few key players. It's on everyone."

Pichot watched from the sidelines as Argentina beat France in Buenos Aires in back-to-back matches in June, before only just losing out to South Africa in Port Elizabeth.

Gone was Argentina's reliance solely on their forwards, reinforced by their backs spreading the ball and playing with pace and panache.

And allied to his country's under-21s reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, the future looks bright for rugby in South America.

However, Pichot remains unconvinced.

It's going to be difficult but we managed to knock Ireland out back in 1999
Agustin Pichot on Argentina's World Cup chances

He said: "The under-21s are very important and their results are great for us. But the only problem is structure."

At present the majority of the team are fully professional while almost all the management remain amateur and still maintain day jobs.

"The management set-up has to become professional," Pichot insisted. "That's the first step. And, by that, I don't mean changing the management set-up.

"The people there are doing a great job but, that's the point, it has to be their only job."

Before any restructuring of Argentine rugby, Pichot and his team-mates' must is qualify from Pool A down under, with Australia, Ireland, Romania and Namibia standing in their way.

"It's going to be difficult," he said, "but we managed to knock Ireland out in 1999.

"In the world that we live in everyone expects things when they happen to happen again. We've been there and know what it is and how it feels.

"Beating Ireland was a very special moment for me, the team and all of Argentina as no one expected us to do it. But, like us, they've come on in leaps and bounds."

And a revitalised Pichot looks set to lead the way.





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