Chilean rugby will have a referee in a World Rugby tournament for the first time in five years. Frank Méndez has been chosen to take charge of the Americas Rugby Championship 2019 second-round game between Brazil and Canada on Saturday.
Aged 26, he juggles his tight schedule as the top referee in his country, with his role as refereeing development officer and leading a huge rugby project at his club, Tapiales Rugby Club.
Located in La Pintana, adjacent to a deprived social area, where drug trafficking is rife, Tapiales Rugby Club is an oasis for boys and girls searching for a better life.
"Growing up I was very untidy and with rugby, I learnt to be part of a group," Méndez recalls. "I like the dynamics, the contact, the skills ... the fact that everybody had a role to play."
As a PE teacher, coach and rugby fanatic, these are the values and traits that Mendez hopes the many boys and girls that come to the Tapiales RUFC fall in love with.
“We have some 100 players in the U18s, boys and girls, an incredible amount for La Pintana. Having 40 girls in that age group is unheard of. In fact, we don't have opposition as there is no women's rugby at that age in Chile, something that fortunately is changing. At U14s, there are more girls than boys."
Méndez was lucky that at his school in Castillo, the toughest 'hood' in Santiago, rugby was introduced by a PE teacher like himself, changing lives. Today, the local municipality in La Pintana is pushing and promoting rugby because of its social values.
In a non-rugby area, rugby is making inroads. "Parents have seen how the game has values they want for their children. They come to me and say, 'I don't know how to get him off the street.' Rugby does that."
From fullback to referee
Mendez first took up the whistle when he injured his wrist while playing full-back for his club. He used his time on the sidelines to undertake a refereeing course and the teachers quickly liked what they saw, giving him more and more games.
"I enjoyed the refereeing scene and made good friends. I used it to gain more experience, as a way to learn, like you continually do as a PE teacher. I've since been lucky to travel to nine countries. In every trip I try to learn, listen to coaches and share experiences."
In 2019 there will even more demands on his time. In addition to his referee development officer role and refereeing appointments, Mendez has been named head coach at Tapiales.
“Everything fits, even if I have to juggle my time. Fortunately, every role works well with the other; I have the ability to read and understand the game. I can look at it as a player, coach and referee."
Méndez has been refereeing internationally in the region for two-and-a-half years, but Saturday is the first World Rugby appointment. “I wasn't expecting it," he says. "I was hoping to be selected for the Sudamérica Rugby Sevens circuit and was pleasantly surprised.”
Without so much as a second thought, Mendez made himself available by cancelling a planned refereeing trip to France. Appreciative of the support he has had from Sudamérica Rugby in climbing the refereeing ladder, Mendez adds: “I wanted to be selected by World Rugby and get a foot in the system as I want to progress as much as I can and open doors to other opportunities for my Chilean colleagues.”
Despite his biggest officiating assignment getting ever closer, Mendez insists nerves don't come into it. “I enjoy being a referee. I want to have fun and help players enjoy themselves and have the best possible game. I've been preparing a lot for this day.”
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