There is nobody quite like Barbara Pichot, an inspirational figure in the embryonic world of South American women’s rugby.
With her boundless energy and engaging personality, the Argentinean is a one-off, and no one who knows the effervescent 50-year-old would have it any other way.
But Pichot is also unique in that she is the region’s first-ever and only women’s rugby coordinator, and that is something she would like to change.
Since her appointment in September 2020, the former English language teacher has worked “24-7” to promote the women’s game in Sudamerica Rugby’s 16 member countries.
In 2019, before COVID-19 intervened, Pichot made 45 rugby-related trips and has visited Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Colombia and Costa Rica and Panamá, and understands first-hand the needs in the region.
Building a team
But the older sister of Los Pumas legend and former World Rugby vice-chairman, Gus, recognises she cannot do it all by herself.
Pichot is determined to open up more opportunities for female leaders to become involved in the running of the game and says a recent online leadership course, organised by the ASOIF Diversity and Gender Equality Consultative Group, will help her achieve this goal.
She was joined in attending the two-month-long course, which involved two-hourly weekly sessions, by two other prominent women’s rugby figures in vice-president and head of women’s rugby in Austria, and a player and coach, Katharina Kueß, and Karina Soerjanatamiharja, the head of women’s rugby in Indonesia.
“If you ask me, ’Barbie, do you have leaders in the region that can help you do this?' I say no, there are only men.
“At the moment, people from a club, from a Federation, from a Union, a player … they all talk to me. I am like an open book for everyone, trying to solve problems.
“We need more women to help spread the game throughout the regions and to get to where I am.
“We need leaders in each country who can become regional leaders. We can look at what other regions have done and adapt it, all in the joy of a growing sport.
“For me, the course was learning how to ‘pass the ball’ to other women, to give me more tools to teach them how to get sponsors on board and things like that.
“I was given some very good tips of things I could change and it was also very helpful to hear from women in sports other than rugby and listening to their issues.”
Once the world returns to ‘some kind of normal’, Sudamerica Rugby plan to unveil a new brand identity for the Argentina national women’s 15s team, as it tries to catch up with their Colombian and Brazilian counterparts.
But growing the game from the bottom up and encouraging more youngsters into rugby throughout the whole of the region, as well as providing better coaching, are two of Pichot’s main drivers.
“I don’t care as much about results, they will come. First, we have to work on the grassroots and then go up through the pathways,” she insisted.
“In Brazil, the women’s sevens team is playing at quite a good level internationally but they don’t have what we would call grassroots rugby, rugby for younger children. They have dedicated all their money to high performance so what we are trying to do is putting some Get into Rugby activity, or something like that, into every part of Brazil, so the little ones can start playing. I want to invert the pyramid.
“I would love to have many little girls playing rugby with the boys, with their daddies taking their daughters down to their clubs to play. It is going to take a little bit more work but that is my view.”
In her native Argentina, Pichot says that women’s rugby has been an afterthought for too long.
“There are 563 clubs in Argentina, and women’s rugby is in 40 of them but not at any of the top clubs. So, the women are taught how to play rugby by men who are not as good as we would like them to be.
"The ones that don’t have anything to do, they get the women, we are always last. But this is changing now; we have appointed six coaches and there is a structure now. They are starting to see there is a way that women can get better and improve as players every day.”
While much needs to be done to level up the playing field in South America, women’s rugby has a formidable character fighting their corner in Pichot.
“I asked Gus to describe me as a person, and he said, ‘you are like a runaway train – unstoppable.’ Unstoppable – that is the word that World Rugby are using for women’s rugby, I like that!”