At last, big Fred lives his dream

Heineken Cup: A man mountain from Argentina and a local Llanelli boy made good meet in Reading today
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The Independent Online

If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. That has been Federico Mendez's motto. His first visit to England ended in shame, his second in shambles. Now, at last, it has been third time lucky for the Argentinian.

Mendez was an 18-year-old schoolboy when he was picked to face England in 1990. Some debut that was. His impact was felt all around Twickenham, not to mention Paul Ackford's head, and he was sent off after less than an hour. The pictures of him sending the big man to the floor are part of rugby legend.

If that was not enough, his second stint, when signed by Bath for the 1996-97 season, was another disaster after he fell out with Andy Robinson. Most would probably have taken the hint, but Mendez refused to be driven out and instead pursued his English dream. Northampton's Heineken Cup semi-final today against Llanelli is justreward for his perseverance.

"It all comes down to the way I feel here," said the 28-year-old. "Since I've been here, the group has mixed brilliantly. We have internationals, youngsters, established stars, potential bright lights - the lot."

The European semi-final at the Madejski Stadium is the first of several key matches in a busy end to a draining season; the Tetley's Bitter Cup final against Wasps follows on Saturday. Winning a trophy, their coach John Steele admits, would be a plus, but the priority is getting back into Europe.

Should they achieve that goal, Mendez's contributions - both on and off the pitch - will have played a crucial role. "Freddie has shown great character to come back from his Achilles injury," said Steele, who replaced Ian McGeechan last summer. "When Freddie's up for it, everybody knows about it. When he wants to get into the opposition, he takes everyone else with him. His influence at this club is massive."

You would not consciously decide to disagree with anything Mendez says, but his self-deprecation is misplaced. "I don't know whether I have a huge impact," said the 17 stone, 6ft 1in Mendosa Bull. "I just enjoy myself here. You can tell everybody else does too because we all turn up every morning looking happy and excited to train.

"All I have done is help the younger players by sharing some of the experience I've accrued," Mendez added. "John [Steele] is very forward-thinking, which is why he lets players voice their opinions. He trusts the senior professionals." Matt Dawson, Paul Grayson, Pat Lam, Tim Rodber and Mendez form a kind of working party within the club. This, however, is not so much power-grabbing as powersharing. "It is unusual for a coach to let players get so involved and play such an active role in training, but John has great strength. He's not worried because he knows he's boss; he just understands the worth of having our opinions."

All this harmony is a far cry from Mendez's brief sojourn in the West Country where, having been seduced by John Hall and Brian Ashton, he joined Bath. Within two months of his arrival, though, both the coaches and his desire to play for the club had gone. Disillusioned, Mendez returned to Argentina.

"It was a really bad experience," he said. "Bath are a traditional English club, and they are not at all willing to change."

Mendez refutes the idea that Bath are the all-encompassing, all-conquering team their League position suggests. "People may think that they like to play an expansive game and are open to new ideas and personnel, but my experience is different to that perception. Me and Andy Robinson never got on. I wasn't his kind of player. Whereas everyone at this club tries to be understanding and concil-iatory, at Bath we were forced to be English forwards.

"You would have thought the reason why they employed me was to bring something different to the club, not to be just another Bath player. I'm Argentinian, so I'm never on time and I go to sleep later. But that doesn't mean I don't try hard or work hard. Robinson was the worst coach I've ever had."

There were those who questioned McGeechan's judgement when he decided to blend so many different nationalities at Northampton. The doubters have been proved wrong - Franklin's Gardens may be home to more foreigners than William Hague would approve of, but the unusual, eclectic mix has produced far- from-conservative results.

"At the start of the season, a few of us looked around the team, saw this great bunch, and said, 'We have to win something'." In setting themselves the targets of winning the Allied Dunbar Premier League, the Heineken Cup and the Tetley's Bitter Cup, Northampton placed the bar high. The League is now out of reach, but the two cups provide the Saints with their best chance of silverware since the early Fifties.

Mendez grew up in Mendosa, a rugby province 800 miles west of Buenos Aires, where he started playing at the age of four. He and Roberto Grau (the Saracens player) were inseparable on the field - where they played as props - as well as off it, where they "played the fools".

It was not until 1994, when Argentina were crying out for a high-calibre No 2, that Mendez made the transition from tight-head to hooker. "The coach came up to the front-row players and said, 'Who fancies it?' I don't know why, but I put my hand up. I've played there, for club and country, since."

Mendez puts his technique and fitness down to the Argentinian tradition of producing "proper" players. From an early age, young aspiring Pumas are forced to go through the basics over and over again until they get them right, while referees are Draconian in applying the letter of the law. As a result, he believes, players do not pick up bad habits during their development.

Mendez's education in what he calls "the art of being a good hooker" was completed by a two-year stint with Natal and his three years in England. His contract expires in the summer, though, when he is likely to return home to play for Mendosa and concentrate on his vineyard, Cuevas del Puma. He promises to stay in touch with Rodber as the two set up a business to import the wine. "I've loved my time at Northampton," Mendez said. "I've gained a lot and I hope I've given a lot too. Foreigners have helped the English game."

His contribution to North-ampton cannot be underestimated, whether it be with the coaching or the colour he has added to the club. "Playing rugby is my passion," Mendez said. "I make money from the game but the main thing for me is to take pleasure. It is important to be able to have fun away from the pitch but then be completely focused for matches. There is a time to play and a time to be serious." Today will be a time to play seriously.

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