Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Pumas: Clubs hold the aces

Non-starter: Felipe Contepomi.
Photo / Getty Images
Non-starter: Felipe Contepomi. Photo / Getty Images

It's not a big surprise on the eve of the Rugby Championship that Argentina's entry is possibly a major con-job.

Any excitement about the Pumas' overdue introduction is being tempered by fears they may be unable to use their best players.

Assurances have been offered they will be at full strength - that 26 leading players will be released by their European clubs.

But as has so often been the way in the past, what is said is not always what is done. There are concerns that the French clubs have assumed their favoured role as villains in what is likely to be a bit of a pantomime.

The crazy world of the Top 14, which is ruled by the big wallets of French plutocrats and their even bigger egos, could throw a gigantic spanner in Sanzar's works.

However much the French clubs - where nearly all the best Pumas are based - say they will comply with the regulations that demand they release players eligible for the Rugby Championship, they can't be trusted.

Sanzar boss Greg Peters has confirmed he has received a letter of assurance from Argentina's high performance director Agustin Pichot that the decision by veteran player Felipe Contepomi to put club before country is an isolated case.

But player release is not a simple, clearcut business - never has been - and over the years, there have been multiple cases of players, mainly Pacific Islanders, being quietly warned by their clubs against making themselves available for their country.

The law is clear but there are ways of muddying the waters. Plausible deniability is the theme - with French club owners notorious for making untraceable threats or promises.
Some players are offered financial incentives to reject their country's advances; others have been taken aside and warned their contract will be in jeopardy if they go.

These clashes are inevitable, as the owners have paid big bucks for their foreign stars and they want them for the season, not parts of.

Several Pumas are key players for their respective clubs and while there is confidence they will line up for Argentina in the Rugby Championship, these things have a way of deviating from the plan.

And, even if by some miracle all those players who say they are available stay available, the picture may be distorted in 2013.

There's a reasonable chance many of the Pumas will report back to their clubs in early October in a state of considerable disrepair - six tests in eight weeks against the three best teams in the world can do that.

Seeing their prized assets spent by early October is hardly going to please the French club owners and their feelings towards the Rugby Championship are likely to cool again.

Attitudes could be more militant next year: club owners may be seriously reluctant to release Pumas and longer term, they may even not bother signing them at all.

Australia Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill has expressed his concerns about the situation.

"The three Sanzar countries have taken a very big leap of faith in bringing Argentina in, and so has the IRB. There is a financial risk, as well as a reputational risk," O'Neill told the Daily Telegraph.

"The key part of the whole equation is Argentina to be at full strength.

"The IRB regulations have been amended to widen the window to ensure that the European clubs are forced to release the players. So we expect full compliance with the regulations and we expect Argentina to be at full strength."

His warning carried a latent threat - understandable, given the efforts Sanzar has gone to in paving the way for Argentina to come on board.

Player access was always the major obstacle. Sanzar had long been empathetic to the plight of the Pumas - aware that for too long, they were the bastard child of world rugby: good enough to make the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup and yet not part of any regular, meaningful tournament.

The situation was relatively complex in that while Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere, most of their players are based in the north.

Joining the Six Nations and setting up base in Barcelona was proposed after the 2007 World Cup but there was never any great appetite for such a move from either the Home Nations or the Argentinians.

The Pumas had to play in Argentina, had to be part of the Tri Nations, and that required serious negotiations with the major European clubs.

The Rugby Championship runs from August to early October - the Northern Hemisphere club competitions begin in late August.

The IRB intervened and secured the official release window: the law is clear and Sanzar were persuaded by the strength of that legislation and positive noises from the clubs that they had amended a raft of Argentinian players' contracts to ensure their availability - effectively they had lowered payments to reflect that they would be on international duty.

- Herald on Sunday

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