Argentina’s first year in the Rugby Championship was a major boost to Latin American rugby but a victory in this year’s campaign could send interest in the region off the scale, according to SANZAR chief Greg Peters.
The Pumas made an impressive debut in the southern hemisphere’s annual test competition in 2012, immediately proving they belonged with a draw with the Springboks and two narrow losses to Australia.
Santiago Phelan’s side begin their sophomore season on Saturday away to South Africa in Johannesburg and South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby (SANZAR) chief executive Peters is convinced they will only get better this year.
This is no criticism but for a good chunk of last year they were probably a 60-minute team, then they went to play Wales and were an 80-minute team and smashed them
“It would be great to see Argentina get up and win a game or two,” Peters said in a telephone interview.
“They came pretty close last year and… I think they would back themselves to have a crack again. That would spark a lot more interest as they continue to improve.
“This is no criticism but for a good chunk of last year they were probably a 60-minute team, then they went to play Wales and were an 80-minute team and smashed them,” he said of the 26-12 victory in Cardiff last November.
“That’s the benefit of their involvement week in week out in a top-flight international competition. They advanced.”
The Pumas struggled to get regular international play for years until their third-placed finish at the 2007 World Cup forced administrators to find them a place at the top-table of rugby.
The southern hemisphere powerhouses agreed to expand their Tri-Nations competition, pending some financial guarantees from the International Rugby Board and plans that Argentina would look to establish a professional game.
The expansion into Latin America has proved a boon for television viewing figures, Peters said, and all of the Rugby Championship matches “rated their socks off”.
“They have been a really good addition to the competition. They showcased the game in Argentina really professionally and the fan response was amazing,” he said.
“They also bring a new dynamic to the game that we haven’t seen before and the viewing numbers in Argentina rated its socks off. They were big numbers, particularly the All Blacks games, but interestingly also in games not involving the Pumas.
“So we want to grow that commercial value.”
While the progress at test level was clear last year, the long-term future of the Pumas rests with a professional structure being put into place in Argentina.
The biggest opportunity to capitalise on the success of the national team may actually come in 2015 when SANZAR negotiates new broadcasting deals for 2016 onwards.
Several options have been discussed by administrators and Peters said the most recently publicised option, where Super Rugby would be split into two conferences, had considerable merits for the game in Argentina.
There is no doubt they make no secret of their aspiration to be in Super Rugby
Under the proposal, South Africa would get six Super Rugby teams and be joined by two from Argentina, while the existing five franchises in both New Zealand and Australia would form a 10-team conference.
An expanded playoff series would then decide the champions. Realignment of the global season could also allow for Super Rugby to run without a break for internationals in June, Peters said.
“There is no doubt they make no secret of their aspiration to be in Super Rugby,” Peters said of Argentina’s hopes for any future expansion of the competition.
“That’s part of the discussions right now is to how they can be accommodated. The professional game in Argentina does not exist, their professional game is in Europe.
“For them to be successful long term they will need to have an involvement in the professional game and not just the international level.”
Any Super Rugby realignment would not affect the Rugby Championship, Peters said, though the possibility of future expansion would never be ruled out.
“In the future, yes,” he said of any possible expansion of the international competition to include teams from North America, the Pacific Islands or Japan.
“But we’re only two years away from the next iteration of our commercial broadcasting arrangements and the SANZAR joint venture renewal so it’s fairly hard to see.
“The Rugby championship will stay as it is. That’s done and dusted. We will just look at ways to grow that in terms of the commercial appeal over the next period.”