The Blues’ English first-five tells Jamie Wall about his against-the-traffic career move south, the upcoming Lions tour and what it was like being hurdled by Vaea Fifita.
Blues first-five Piers Francis is a unique character in modern rugby: an Englishman who moved to New Zealand to further his career and ended up playing Super Rugby. Since originally relocating as an 18-year-old the former Saracens Academy player has represented Auckland, Waikato and Counties at provincial level, made the Chiefs wider training squad and is now a fully contracted member of the Blues.
I sat down with Piers to talk about his journey from north to south, the upcoming Super Rugby season and a couple of memorable highlights from last season…
JW: How come you ended up in New Zealand?
PF: I came here on a gap year, just eager to pursue professional rugby. Over here is the Mecca of rugby, so it’s a great place to test myself. I went through the New Zealand system – club rugby, academies, age grade and provincial stuff – till I finally made it to where I am now. It’s awesome.
What made you choose here rather than Aussie or South Africa? Did you know people, or did you get some advice? How long did you originally intend to come out here for?
I believed New Zealand was the best place for rugby, not that I’d ever been here. I didn’t really have any contacts other than an old coach of mine who set me up at the Marist club here in Auckland. My parents had some friends who live on the North Shore, but that was it. Originally I’d said I’d be here for a year, but I’d been advised to stay for at least two to really give it a good crack, which in hindsight was the right decision because I made the premier club side and things really started moving in the second year. I got a chance to join the Chiefs wider training squad in 2012, which was the year they won Super Rugby and gave me a spot in the Waikato team.
From there you went back to the UK, but you ended up back here. Why was that?
I believed at the time I wanted to make my mark in the UK, so I signed with Edinburgh. At the time they were playing in Pro12, but I had a tough time there, to be honest. The club was in a little bit of upheaval, the head coaches left within a few months of me getting there. I don’t think I played the best to begin with, then I got injured. I was released and it only seemed natural to come back to New Zealand. It was pretty much like a holiday at first really, just playing club rugby and a bit of Auckland B stuff. But then I struck up a conversation with Tana Umaga who wanted me to play for Counties, which was just what I needed.
Speaking of Tana, let’s hypothetically fast-forward to June. There’s been a horrible injury crisis in the Lions. All their first fives are injured…
Stranger things have happened!
…Tana’s named you in the Blues, but Warren Gatland calls and says ‘mate, we can’t fly anyone out in time, we need you’. What do you do?
Ummmmm… that’s a tough question. The Lions are the pinnacle of a European rugby career, so that’d be very tough to turn down.
That’s a very diplomatic answer. Do you keep an eye on what’s happening in the 6 Nations and the Lions buildup? How about from a Blues perspective, are the team keeping an eye on what’s happening so you know who you’re going to be playing?
Probably not as much as people think I would be. From a team perspective, to be honest, probably not either. There’s a lot of pressure on us in terms of the Super Rugby competition, so we’re taking that game by game. But as it gets closer it’ll build up, this tour will be huge and the momentum will mean we’ll have to start thinking about it.
I would be pretty confident in my fellow countrymen to do the job. They are in a good space at the moment.
You played first and second-five last season, but the Blues have made a big addition to their midfield with the signing of Sonny Bill Williams. Does this mean we’re going to see you more at 10 this time around?
Ah, I hope so! Obviously Sonny has an injury so there’s a vacancy in that 12 shirt for the start of the season. We have a lot of firepower in our midfield, but a lot of guys are returning from injuries. So there might be an opportunity there for me, it’s the shirt I finished the last Super Rugby season in.
Going back to the Mite 10 Cup, you were involved in one of the great highlights from last year. What is your recollection of getting hurdled by Vaea Fifita?
(Laughs) Well he’s a big man! My impression of the situation was basically trying to tackle him but then seeing a big boot coming flying towards me, so I ducked and he completely bamboozled me. I think there must be a great picture of me looking behind and wondering what’s just gone on. I remember questioning the touch judge and asking “are we all allowed to jump over one another now?” Anyway, I appreciate his athleticism and the fact that despite making me look a little silly, people watching enjoyed it.
OK, so here’s a highlight that’s a lot more flattering. You were voted Rugby Pass NZ staff’s favourite player for this filthy sidestep against the Waratahs last year. How do you feel about that honour?
Ha, well thanks. I don’t normally receive credit for tries, because I don’t often dot down, but that’s very humbling. I was pretty pleased to get the try having not scored one all season. I did make a meal of it at the end though, probably didn’t need the last half-twirl.
You really broke Nick Phipps’ ankles on that play, and we’ve actually pinpointed that as the moment he turned into a rugby supervillain – spray tanning far too much, throwing people’s boots and shoving medics – how do you feel about that?
Good! It’s always fun to get an Aussie halfback’s knickers in a twist.
Spoken like a true Kiwi. Good luck for the upcoming season!
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