Francisco Planella captained Chile in the 1980s and never dreamt they would make it to a World Cup
Chile legend Francisco Planella walked so Rodrigo Fernández could run. Chile’s former fly-half was in the stands when the incumbent No 10 scored a sensational solo try in a qualifying mud bath against the USA.
It was named World Rugby’s men’s try of the year for 2022 but even more importantly meant Chile lost by only one point in the first leg of their qualifying play-off against the Eagles, a tie they famously went on to win by the same margin to book a trip to their first Rugby World Cup.
Read more: Chile Rugby World Cup squad
Fast forward 14 months and Planella has swapped the storm in Santiago for tears in Toulouse as he takes his place in the stands for Chile’s opening clash with Japan. We talk perhaps too readily of dreams coming true and childhood ambitions being realised, but this was much more than that for the Chile captain of the 1980s. This was beyond his wildest imagination.
The World Cup did not even exist in his pomp and the the inaugural 1987 tournament was an invitational competition, reinforcing the sense that it was not designed for the likes of Chile to participate. But how things have changed in the last 40 years.
The likes of Diego Escobar and Marcelo Torrealba shone in a battling display against the Brave Blossoms that ended in a 42-12 defeat to mark Chile’s arrival on the global stage but it was a far cry from the internationals Planella used to take part in.
While Chile’s players have made no secret of their desire to swap shirts with Saturday’s opponents England, one of the country’s rugby legends was more preoccupied with coughing up for his own match shirt during his career when little more than pride was on the line.
Fittingly, it was Fernández who scored the country’s first ever try at a World Cup with Planella able to witness it first hand. The 67-year-old is on a rugby tour with The Grange School, his alma mater where he now works as team manager for the First XV. The institution provided ten of the 23 that played Samoa in Chile’s second game with the current schoolboys moving on to fixtures in Scotland and England before flying back to South America.
Chile legend Planella reflects on his nation’s progress
“It didn’t exist when I was playing, we didn’t imagine that there would be a Rugby World Cup,” Planella tells me at Harrison’s Coffee, a Chilean cafe in London around the corner from Rugby World HQ. We had the Six Nations and international Tests but we never thought it would come and now it’s the third biggest global sporting event.”
“We didn’t have any money. When I started, sometimes we had to pay for the clothes. We had absolutely nothing. It was hard for us but they sacrifice everything now. They train nearly every day but we trained twice a week. It’s totally different; it’s another rugby. Physically it has changed and the rules have changed.
“To see Chile in their first game at the World Cup was amazing. Singing the national anthem, of course, I was crying. My generation put something there and it has grown. I was absolutely proud, they gave everything on the field.”
Chile are the 20th international side that England have ever faced but the historical emphasis of course lies with their opponents. Victory appears more than a long shot, so what would represent success against the returning Owen Farrell and co?
Verdict on what would be a good result v England
“They are one of the best teams in the world,” adds Planella, who is known as ‘Pancho’. “It is going to be fantastic. I imagine the boys will be thinking about playing in a big stadium with a full crowd against England. A world champion team who have won many Six Nations. They will be so proud to play that game.
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“I would like it to be below 50 points but it depends how England go about it. They have picked a strong team with Farrell and Marcus Smith and George Ford to come off the bench, three star guys! It depends if our forwards can contain the English forwards. It won’t be a close game but maybe like Japan and Samoa. We need to try and score some points, that would be nice.”
The establishment of Super Rugby Americas and the Chilean franchise Selknam in 2019 has helped bring on the national team no end, much like the Jaguares did for Argentina. Bonds have been forged and many players have been raised to semi-pro status. “They have competition for places and in the league. And now it is all Chileans!”
Planella had a 13-year international playing career from 1975 to 1988, seven as captain, and even spent a couple of years coaching Chile after retiring. That role is now held by Uruguayan Pablo Lemoine, and much of Chile’s progress can be attributed to the 48-year-old’s hard work.
“I know Lemoine personally and he is a tough guy,” says Planella. “When he started (in 2018) he said, ‘Hey this is my plan, who wants to do it and who doesn’t?’ There were some who didn’t because it was six in the morning training, midday training and at night, training!
“Many of the boys are students, some have work and some have families. They sacrificed many things to be at the World Cup. I am so proud of what they do. But sometimes it comes with costs. These boys are fantastic, I hope some of them will get a contract here in Europe. Two or three have shown they can play at the best level.”
Once Chile and England have finished proceedings in Lille, all attention will turn to South Africa’s clash with Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris. The Springboks are a nation that Chile have close links with and an unforeseen byproduct of the apartheid exclusion, politics aside, was the development of Chilean rugby.
Planella explained: “At the end of the Eighties, because of apartheid in South Africa, nobody wanted to play them. Chile had relations with the government and many teams came to play. The country team, Northern Transvaal, Eastern Transvaal, big teams. And in 1980 the Springboks came to South America to play Argentina undercover, they were called the South American team. They also played against Chile but we had some Argentines.
“I think they were the best team I ever played against. Centre Danie Gerber and No 8 and captain Morné du Plessis stood out. They had a lot of stars. Fly-half Naas Botha, too.”
Chile travelled to South Africa in 1983, playing ten games and winning three. And Planella believes that really helped kickstart the growth of the game at home. “It was a fantastic tour but very hard for us. We played different levels against clubs. But we played at Newlands and Loftus Versfeld. That helped Chile to start growing with rugby.”
While he waxes lyrical about the brilliant Boks, the best player Planella faced in South America was the iconic Argentina fly-half Hugo Porta. Some have even gone as far to describe Planella as Chile’s Porta, but it’s not a description he sees as fit.
“There’s no comparison! I played in the same position at No 10 and kicked the ball but he was a star all over the world. I was friends with him, he is older than me by about five or six years but he’s a nice guys and he’s very loved in Argentina. He’s like Messi!”
It has been some ride for Planella and Chile, and it must be surreal to see his side sharing a field with England, but here’s hoping the journey for Chile at this level has only just begun.