Mendez primed to sign off in style

Pugnacious Puma hooker set to make ferocious farewell to Northampton side fighting on three fronts
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The Independent Online

Federico Mendez is considering going home for good this summer, home to the Argentinian pampas where the men are real men, the matches are macho and the players do what they do for pride and honour rather than a weekly pay packet. At the same time, the most complete hooker in the world game is being lured by a big-time offer from France. The temptation to cross the Channel is strong, for Mendez knows that his combustible rugby personality would reach full flower in a land where the beauty and the beast go hand in hand. Then again, he might simply stay with Northampton, where he feels happy. As one of his colleagues puts it: "Freddie does not know what to do for the best. His indecision is final."

The likelihood must be that the celebrated Puma will follow his instincts and head off back to Ciudad de Mendoza, where he was born 27 years and a dozen controversies and conflagrations ago. "I want to go for personal and business reasons that have nothing to do with my life at Northampton, which has been warm and enjoyable," he said this week. In which case, his farewell to the East Midlands will be dramatic in the extreme: an English cup final with Wasps tomorrow, two critical Premiership matches in the space of five days and then back to Twickenham for the mother and father of end-of-season bashes: a European decider against Munster.

"We've played a lot of rugby," he acknowledged with an air of understatement wholly at odds with an approach to life that borders on the exaggerated. "But there is also much still to come, even though we're into the last couple of weeks.

"Yes, I want to play in all four matches left to us: I'm not a good watcher and I don't enjoy sitting in the stand. I either want to be in the middle of it, or away from it altogether. Are we a tired team? I don't think so. Our mindset is governed by results, and we see ourselves as a winning side."

If Mendez is fresher than many of his fellow Saints, it is purely because he got his injury in first, to rework the old rugby cliché about "early retaliation". Back home in Argentina last summer, he damaged an Achilles tendon while playing touch rugby and saw his hopes of playing in a third World Cup disappear through the nearest window. "It was a stupid thing," he recalled after a light training run and a bracing visit to the scrummaging machine at Franklin's Gardens on Wednesday. "I accelerated as I received a pass, something I've done a million times in my life, and pulled up straight away. I knew I was in trouble, that it would be some time before I could play again."

Over six months, as it turned out; Mendez did not return to senior rugby until he emerged from the Northampton replacements' bench midway through the first of two Heineken Cup pool matches with Edinburgh Reivers in the second week of December. While the enforced break enabled him to keep some powder dry for the back end of an interminable northern hemisphere campaign, the frustrations were enormous; not only because a fine Argentinian side reached the last eight of a World Cup for the first time in four attempts, but because Mario Ledesma, the Curupayti hooker, performed so brilliantly in the Puma front row that Mendez was scarcely missed.

"Ledesma was good, yes," he accepted. "But I have set my heart on playing in another World Cup, so I intend to make sure that I regain my place in time for 2003 in Australia. If I am fit, I am good enough to be in the side. If they want to play both Mario and me, maybe I'll move to prop. I've played there enough times in the past and anyway, I don't have a problem with any front-row position."

Where Mendez does have a problem is with Argentina's ultra-conservative, not to say reactionary, governing body, the Union Argentina de Rugby. "There's a great deal of bullshit flying around at home," he said, as bluntly as you like. "Argentinian rugby is full of politics, and the politics never seem to go away. The game is still 100 per cent amateur there, which is the main reason why we don't play against countries like Fiji and Samoa and Japan in the Epson Cup. The officials think that if we play in international competitions, the players have to be paid; that if the players are paid, the game goes pro; and if the game goes pro, the players stop playing for the shirt and think only of money. It's rubbish, of course, but that's the way they look at it."

Yet in spite of it all, Mendez is keen to make his peace with the elderly paragons of virtue in Buenos Aires and call time on five long years of globe-trotting, during which he has lived and breathed rugby in Durban, where he won a Currie Cup with Natal, and Bath, where he struggled to get his head around Andy Robinson's severe coaching regime and won rather less than might reasonably have been expected. "There are many things in my life and most of them are in Argentina," he explained. "To begin with, I have a wine importing business to look after. If I go back - and at the moment, it's looking that way - I'll still play rugby, and play for nothing if necessary. I'm 27 and I have another World Cup in me. I intend to make it to 2003."

However, Mendez is not planning on making a definite call until the dust has settled on the Heineken Cup final a fortnight tomorrow. That gives John Steele, the director of rugby at Northampton, a small window of opportunity on the negotiating front. "Freddie is an astonishing player, someone who can do it all, and we want to keep him here," admitted Steele this week. "There is an issue with him at the moment, there's no point denying it. But we're talking, and I'd like to think the talks will prove fruitful."

If Mendez does leave, it will be a wrench. "Northampton is a players' club, a family," he said. "It is a happy environment, a place in which you can develop your personality as well as your rugby skills. For me, John Steele has been excellent this season. He hasn't brought in new elements just for the sake of it, but allowed the players to do things in their own way and grow together. I certainly think we can beat Wasps at Twickenham to take the Cup and if we do, John can be proud of his contribution."

Northampton and Mendez suit each other: the player is the very epitome of the rootless, have-boots-will-travel rugby professional, while the Saints' pack is a polyglot affair - three Scottish internationals, a Springbok, a Samoan, a Welsh Under-21 cap and a solitary Englishman tend to scrummage alongside the most-gifted Puma of the age when Steele fields his full-strength unit. "From the moment I came here, I felt at home," said the great hooker. Mendoza has a lot of catching up to do.