After being released by Saracens at 17, Piers Francis now finds himself playing Super Rugby.
When Tana Umaga announced the Blues starting XV to play los Jaguares earlier this month, one name on the team sheet stood out, that of Piers Francis.
Although Francis may not be a household in England, he belongs to an elite group of northern hemisphere players who have played Super Rugby.
Indeed, this season only sees two other European players compete in the southern hemisphere’s elite club competition, Ireland’s Jamie Hagan at the Melbourne Rebels, and Scotland’s Huw Jones with the Stormers.
However, unlike players such James Haskell, Danny Cipriani and Frederic Michalak, Francis has taken an unconventional route to Super Rugby.
After being released from the Saracens academy at 17 years of age, Francis chose not to go to University, but pursue his dream of playing professional rugby in Auckland’s academy.
Francis then went onto join the Chiefs and Waikato, before returning to the UK with Edinburgh and Doncaster. However after meeting with Umaga, Francis’ route into Super Rugby became clear.
Alan Drumm: How did you find yourself playing in the ITM Cup after spending three years in the Saracens academy? Was there something that particularly attracted you to New Zealand?
Piers Francis: My dream has always been to play rugby professionally and it’s widely recognised that the All Blacks are the benchmark for world rugby, so when Saracens released me at the age of 17, New Zealand seemed the perfect place to go to learn and test myself.
I didn’t want to go to University straight away after finishing school and took the leap of faith to pursue my dream.
I managed to achieve my first provincial cap with Auckland after making my way into the Auckland academy system and through their 20s programme and went on to the Chiefs and Waikato before signing a two year deal with Edinburgh.
AD: You then returned to the UK, joining Edinburgh and then Doncaster, but decided to once more leave for New Zealand in 2014. What made you want to join Counties Manukau and not look for a club in the Championship, Premiership or Pro 12?
PF: It was a testing time for me at Edinburgh, one of the most difficult of my career, spending 8 months on the sideline with a foot injury.
My contract came to an end and I was desperate for some game time and with the UK season finishing I decided to go back out to NZ where the season was underway.
I played club rugby with my old team, Auckland Marist, and played with Auckland B during the rep season. It was during this time that I had a conversation with Tana Umaga which led to me signing a two year ITM Cup (now know as Mitre 10 Cup) deal with Counties Manukau, which I was thrilled about.
At the end of the day, you have to grab opportunities when they arise and when someone as talented and respected as Tana offers you a chance, you don’t turn it down!
In the interim period, to make sure I had even more game time I came back to the UK and signed with Doncaster for a short period. They’re a team going from strength to strength and it was a great few months.
I came back out to NZ last April playing club rugby for Bombay before the ITM Cup kicked off. I’ve not turned my back on the English Premiership by any means so we’ll see what the future holds, but for now I’m excited to be with the Blues and concentrating on what we’re doing.
AD: What are the methodological differences between a coach like Umaga and those you encountered in the northern hemisphere?
PF: I am very lucky to be working with Tana at the Blues (and previously at Counties). He’s a fantastic coach and focuses on skills – setting aside a lot of time during training to practise and improve.
The fact that he is not too long out of the game as a player himself is a bonus for us as he is very player focussed. He also places a lot of importance on family, which is important to me.
AD: Having made your Super Rugby debut against los Jaguares, what are the main differences between the club game in the northern and southern hemispheres?
PF: Let’s be honest, the main difference is the weather and the conditions you play in week after week! We are lucky to have a lot of sunny days in Auckland which makes playing even better.
From a technical perspective the game has a very attacking mindset over here and the ability to score points is key. This allows players to express themselves with the ball and create a fast and dynamic tempo of game.
My first game against the Jaguares was undoubtedly the biggest game of my life so far and didn’t disappoint in its speed and tempo – despite not being considered the quickest game of the season.
AD: Do you think there is a skills deficit in the northern hemisphere, or are players inhibited by conservative strategies and coaching philosophies?
PF: I wouldn’t say that there is a skills deficit. Each team has their own philosophies. The UK game is played differently for sure but a lot of New Zealand players are applying their trade in the UK leagues.
As a player it’s great to be able to experience the differences of both styles and it makes you a better overall player to have that experience.
AD: Having played most of your professional rugby in New Zealand, what benefits are there of doing so, as opposed to England or Scotland?
When you’re out here, you’re playing against some of the best teams in the world week in week out. There are a number of current All Blacks at the Blues and some other very talented players so to be training with them is amazing and you learn so much.
The depth of talent in NZ in the domestic league is incredible and the fact that you get to play Super Rugby against the powerhouses of Australia and South Africa is great for development – even more so with the inclusion of Argentina and Japan to the competition.
Obviously I’ve still to experience the top level of rugby in England but that’s something I’ll hopefully do later in my career.
AD: Do you think that more players from the northern hemisphere should expose themselves to southern hemisphere rugby?
PF: Absolutely. As I mentioned before, you want to gain the most experience you can, so if you can experience both, even better.
AD: Finally, do you see yourself returning to England any time in the future?
PF: I’m very happy where I am now and I think it’s best to focus on the present with whatever you’re doing in life.
Right now I’m living my dream and at the very start of my journey with the Blues, which is really exciting. Of course I would love to play for England one day, but for now, New Zealand and the Blues is the perfect place to be.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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