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IRB under pressure to Open tri-Nations door to Argentina

By Peter Bills

Argentina could be playing in an expanded Tri-Nations rugby tournament from as early as next year, it emerged in Paris last night.

The team that has been the major success story of the 2007 Rugby World Cup has proved itself good enough to compete with its southern hemisphere rivals in a new four-nations tournament spread across the southern hemisphere. Yet, ironically, the only barrier to this course of events appears to be the International Rugby Board itself, a body that ought to be the Pumas' greatest supporters.

They patted the Pumas on the head, figuratively speaking, after Sunday's semi-final against South Africa and told them how well they'd done to reach the last four. This Friday, if Argentina beat France in the bronze play-off, they will finish third at this World Cup, an extraordinary achievement.

Yet the IRB continues to drag its feet over getting the Pumas into a serious professional competition for the first time in their history. IRB chairman Syd Millar, asked recently what the Board intended to do to end the anomaly of Argentina's isolation from world rugby, proclaimed: "It is not in the Board's gift to force their entry into an international competition."

If that sounded like a so-called world governing body abdicating responsibility and turning its back on proper leadership, then the Board only has itself to blame. Governing bodies are supposed to lead, to direct and, where necessary, to instruct. Those below them have to toe the line if they wish to operate in their domain.

It has now become clear that TV bosses in the southern hemisphere are far from satisfied with the current format and are most reluctant to see a return to the arrangement whereby the three competing nations play each other three times in a season by rotation. That format was reduced this year because of the World Cup but in 2008 it is due to revert to the original plan.

But TV bosses are now saying out loud they have little further interest in that formula. One insider told me: "Quite honestly, this Tri-Nations event simply isn't working for us. We want to see a meaningful expansion and that means Argentina coming in."

But will it happen ? "Put it like this", I was told, "if it doesn't, they risk ending up without a TV deal at all. The figures aren't good and something has to be done. Now."

The current SANZAR TV deal is due to run until 2010 but, clearly, television does not want to wait that long to change the format.

The IRB could put up a financial sum to assuage the concerns of the three southern hemisphere powers about the cake being cut four ways, thereby costing them revenue. Realistically, that is the chief stumbling block to immediate action. If the loss was covered it would be inexplicable for those nations still to resist Argentina's entry.

But the likelier route is for the SANZAR countries to go directly to the TV people and request a re-negotiated contact that included Argentina. My information is that they would be pushing at an open door.

With even a modest increase in the value of the deal and, possibly, some limited financial support from the IRB, the deal could be struck this side of Christmas. Argentina could gain entry into next year's tournament and, rightfully, take their place in a proper competition.

The Board's present claims that they are powerless to act is a mystery. A governing body in any sport surely has the capacity to run its own game.

If this is not the case in rugby union, then it says that there is a dangerous vacuum at the top. In time, outside interests may well look to exploit such a void if it truly does exist.

Belfast Telegraph


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