The first great casualty of rugby's new world order
Like prime Aston Martins flying out of the showroom, the finest Argentinean players have left Buenos Aires in waves these past few weeks, an almighty fire sale of talent to England and France. A year after reaching the Super Rugby final, the Jaguares are being gutted. These players are not being poached, but leaving through grim necessity. Their place in Super Rugby, so hard-earned and feverishly fought for, is set to vanish and Argentina’s union is advising them to take whatever contracts they can in Europe with little prospect of meaningful rugby at home.
Captain and totem Jeronimo de la Fuente is off to Perpignan. Matias Moroni and Matias Orlando, two terrific centres, are going to Leicester and Newcastle. Locks Guido Petti and Matias Alemanno have signed for Bordeaux-Begles and Gloucester, and flanker Marcos Kremer has joined Stade Francais, where he will remain under the tutelage of the brilliant Gonzalo Quesada.
The coach is on record as saying he wanted to stay with the Jaguares and attempt to win Super Rugby this season, a sentiment shared by many of those who have since taken their leave. But Quesada too had to flit. More players still are pursuing overseas deals and the upshot for Argentinean rugby could be devastating.
The Pumas waged the longest and most arduous battle to win their berth at the top table. Their brilliance became so blindingly obvious that their claim grew irrepressible even to a staunch old world order. The glorious teams of Agustin Pichot, Juan Martin Hernandez and Mario Ledesma, the current national coach, ploughed a bruising furrow to haul their nation into the Rugby Championship in 2012. The Jaguares finally gained their spot in Super Rugby four years later.
In a sense, Argentina are desperate victims of geography as the sport scrutinises and restructures itself amid the Covid-19 pandemic. New Zealand have long been unhappy with the bloated Super Rugby format and there is a desire now for countries to align with others in more compatible time zones. Neither a South American league nor the United States’ burgeoning Major League Rugby would provide the Jaguares with sufficient competition. Argentina will remain in the Rugby Championship, but they will surely be a diminished force without unfettered access to the vast majority of their squad.
“We are going to lose 10 years of rugby that we’ve built,” Figallo tells RugbyPass. “When I was first getting into the Pumas squads, they were asking us to go to Europe to be professional, as they couldn’t afford it in Argentina.
“They worked so hard to get a professional team in the country playing in Super Rugby and got into the final after years of struggling with flights, time differences, getting a base. We were training at a club and some days the guys left their boots in the clubhouse and they were gone the next day.
“It was a really, really tough journey for these guys, and all that hard work is lost within a day. It was tough to take. Moroni has signed for Leicester but he was pretty gutted, he didn’t want to go. These guys had been on quite a big journey and changing like that is pretty hard for them.”
In losing so many players, Argentina cede control of the workloads of their biggest internationals. They don’t have the same contact with their stars or the same quality preparation time.
Figallo has spent his entire professional career in Europe, five years at Montpellier before joining the English champions in 2014. When Argentina were admitted to the Rugby Championship, Montpellier tried to impose a “massive” pay cut upon him knowing he would soon be unavailable for weeks of the French season. Figallo fought them and won, but when the time came to renew his deal, he had to accept a lower wage.
“Sometimes clubs say, ok, we’ll sign you, but only if you stop playing international rugby,” he says. “It happens a lot, but I hope it doesn’t happen to the players leaving Argentina now.
“The European clubs are putting more and more pressure on players to stop playing internationally. Imagine an Argentinean player in Europe, they have to go for Test matches in June, the Rugby Championship from August to October and Test matches in November, and that’s a lot of time and money for the club.
“If you apply World Rugby’s Regulation 9 on player release for international windows, they have to give you the players five clear days before the Test, so how long are you going to train as a team compared with, for example, New Zealand?
“And what is going to be their rest time and holidays? They need five weeks off. Yes, they’ve been in lockdown, but when are you going to have the weeks that a player needs to recover during the year? They’re all talking about when are we going to play, but thinking ahead, when are they going to stop? There are so many things they have to look at.”
This sort of murky conduct aside, it is quite possibly the worst time since the sport turned professional to be seeking a move. Rugby’s transfer market has been ravaged by coronavirus, the game’s foundations of sand exposed and crumbling. Clubs are losing money and in some cases suspending recruitment altogether. Pay cuts are frequent. Earnings across the board are going to fall. The salary caps in England and France are being reduced and their respective clubs are heftily incentivised – or in the case of the Top 14 mandated – to field home-grown players.
Agent Tom Beattie works with several Argentineans and represented Orlando in the centre’s move to Newcastle. Seldom has it been harder for such talented players to find new homes.
“Every club is having to cut their cloth,” Beattie says. “I have to manage expectations and be very open and honest with players in saying, ‘look, you are going to have to take less money than perhaps you would have six months ago’.
“But it’s not just about finances. You also have to consider how many foreign players a team can carry. In England, you’re incentivised by the RFU to field English-qualified players, which is a massive thing and even more so now as a revenue stream. In France, you have the JIFF rule. And if you look at Wales, Ireland or Scotland, how many foreigners can they have in a Pro14 team?
“The great thing about a number of Argentine players is they do have European passports – Matias has got an Italian passport which helps – but again it comes down to what positional needs does a club have and can they squeeze a foreign Argentinean player into their group?
“It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. That’s the challenge and that’s why not all of these players will get overseas contracts.”
In this scenario, the clubs hold all the cards. Players need to move and may have little option but to sign a less lucrative contract than they had enjoyed in Argentina. It is also fiendishly difficult for the cohort of players beneath the real superstars to get out.
“The Jaguares players are trying to earn what they were earning in Argentina and the clubs are saying no,” Figallo adds. “The clubs have lost money and they are in a powerful position because they have what the player wants and it’s a case of take it or leave it. Sometimes, guys have to take it.
“They always start by asking for a lot of money and now they are going down and down and down because of the market. Leicester lost Manu Tuilagi, so they are probably spending less on Moroni, who is a world-class centre.
“But the medium-level players – are they going to get a contract? A lot of them are worried about where they are going to play, and if they are young-ish, they are panicking a bit. Yes, you are going to get paid if you stay in Argentina, but if you are not playing, you are not going to be chosen for Argentina. And if you are chosen for Argentina, you are not going to be fit enough to play against the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship.”
Figallo would love to see an Argentinean team mixing it with the “big dogs” again as soon as is practically possible, but if that utopia cannot materialise, he hopes more money can be invested in professionalising the domestic league, filtering in players who do not move overseas and exploiting their talent and nous. There are, however, dissenting voices who contest that amateur rugby should remain untouched by the elite game.
“In Argentina, you are not allowed to play for your old club team if you are professional,” Figallo says.
“The players keep asking now, can you let us play for the club I used to play for? They need to get a competition. Some unions say those players are going to make a massive difference to their club teams, but you can also argue that this guy coming in is going to push everyone and effectively be a player-coach and bring so much to the club and the union.
“If we want to be a world-class union, we have to take the example of New Zealand where Ardie Savea was playing a few weeks ago with his club, Dan Carter at 38 went from the Blues to play for his club.
“Imagine for the young lads playing for Jaguares who miss going back to play with their friends and families in their towns. Yes, they don’t have another place to play because if they had, they would be playing there. So why don’t we take them back and let them play?”
In helping Argentineans plot a route to Europe, Beattie encounters a common, searing national pride and a lust to wear the Pumas jersey. But he sees too concern at the fragmenting of a major rugby power.
“I think Mario Ledesma and the coaching team want to have the frontline guys getting the opportunity to continue to play against the best players at the highest levels,” the agent says.
“I deal with and speak to a lot of players – they love playing with and against the best, because they grow and learn. That will be a challenge for Argentina internally.
“They have been impacted more by Covid-19 than any other Tier One nation in terms of the future of their professional game.”
That is hard to dispute. Argentina are likely to enter a New Zealand-based Rugby Championship in several months, but their collective training time will be modest. Reports indicate they may play a warm-up match against Uruguay – less than stellar preparation for the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies, but at least it’s a Test. There is talk too of some Jaguares players joining Australian franchises and the future of Super Rugby remains shrouded in doubt and marred by squabbling as New Zealand attempt to call the shots.
“We need to play the Rugby Championship, but it’s going to harm our reputation in a way because we’re not going to be that fit,” Figallo says. “Hopefully we beat the All Blacks but I don’t see it like that.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 27, 2019
“The situation definitely upsets me, because we finally had a professional team in the country, playing in an amazing competition.
“Not only did it give players the level they needed to play at, but also for society, because the games are on TV every weekend, you’ve got the New Zealand teams and the best players in the world coming to your country to play. People get interested and into rugby, and rugby starts to grow in the country.
“Now, without this competition, I don’t know where rugby is going to go. There is going to be a lot of hard, hard work and I don’t know if we’re going to end in a good place.”
Tackling the sport’s great calendar paradox is unwieldy and at times vexing, but there is a serious risk here that Argentina could be left grievously worse off. What a colossal blow it would be if their growth, forged by the sweat and wits of Pichot, Ledesma and scores of others, was to be undone. What a grave injustice if Argentinean rugby became collateral damage.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now