If Tom Francis returned to the Exeter Chiefs this week “a bit smug” then he had every right to be.
Francis is not a player usually prone to extravagant gestures, his mullet haircut aside. This is the man who, growing up in England, decided against signing up to the Welsh Rugby Union’s Exiles programme – which operates under the banner “pathway for all” – because he didn’t feel he was good enough.
But on Tuesday he strolled back into Sandy Park as a grand slam winner, and almost the physical embodiment of what Alun Wyn Jones meant when he ventured that Wales’ Six Nations heroes were an example of what can be achieved through hard work.
The 26-year-old was by no means a novice at the outset of this year’s Championship. Francis made his Wales debut in 2015 and had amassed 36 Test caps ahead of the tournament opener in Paris last month.
However, it would be a stretch to suggest that the tighthead had made the Welsh number three shirt his own. Of those 36 caps, only 19 had been earned as a starter.
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Samson Lee had provided a sizeable obstacle to Warren Gatland’s first-choice front-row for much of the Exeter player’s international career, while Dillon Lewis appeared to be the coming man.
Cardiff Blues prop Lewis is better over the ball than Francis, more mobile around the park and could mature into Wales’ tighthead for the next decade.
For now, though, the younger man was kept in reserve, used as an impact replacement when games were stretched and opposition bodies tired.
In the big games, against France, England, Scotland and Ireland, it was Francis who was asked to help set the tone.
It would be easy to forget just how much concern there had been for the Welsh set piece going into that first game at the Stade de France. Jacques Brunel had picked a mammoth pack, with Jefferson Poirot and Uini Atonio up against Francis and Rob Evans.
Francis, after all, had started more Gallagher Premiership games watching Exeter from the replacements’ bench (five) than in the number three shirt (four) prior to the start of the Six Nations.
But any misgivings were quickly extinguished as the Chiefs prop helped force Poirot into giving away an early scrum penalty.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) April 3, 2014
At Murrayfield, against Scotland, the 26-year-old enjoyed arguably his finest afternoon in a Wales shirt. Francis secured possession from kick-off to set the tone for a dominant first-half in which he displayed his handling skills to link play following a Gareth Anscombe break.
Unsurprisingly that was his only offload of the Championship. But the Chiefs front-row displayed his aptitude for hard graft in the second-half in Edinburgh, helping to hold up Grant Gilchrist on the line and by the time he was replaced with 15 minutes to go he had again contributed a baker’s dozen towards the team’s tackle count.
No longer the player who looked embarrassed to be caught on television cameras during his cameo on the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand, Francis was at the forefront of a dominant scrummaging performance against Ireland last Saturday.
He finished the Championship having made 40 tackles, missing just three, in defence and provided that one offload, two goal line successes and beat one defender from eight carries in attack.
Most importantly though Francis ended 233 minutes of action with one reputation seriously enhanced.
If the Lions departed for South Africa this summer instead of in 2021, then it would only be logical that he would come into the conversation – alongside ‘Geography Six’ alumni Gareth Davies, Cory Hill and Finn Russell – for the touring party proper.
“When you see young men come into the side and grow over an eight-week period, you feel proud,” Alun Wyn Jones said in the wake of the Ireland victory.
“The message before the game was very simple – be proud of what you represent, who you are and where you’re from. If you work hard enough, you get your rewards.”
Wales captain Jones was deservedly named Player of the Tournament, while Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Josh Navidi, Liam Williams and others did more in individual moments to steer Wales towards the Championship.
But no one epitomises Alun Wyn’s words more than Francis, a player who came of age in the red of Wales over that two-month period.
Not that his newfound status as a grand slam champion has helped him on his return to his club – for whom he starts on the bench against Bath on Sunday.
“He (Francis) has been a bit smug I’m not gonna lie,” Exeter and England wing Jack Nowell joked to RugbyPass this week.
“He had a bit of stick at the start [of the week] and a bit of banter was being thrown around but for us now it’s all about growing together as a team to get ourselves in that [Premiership] final.”
Nowell added: “You can’t underestimate how good it is to win a Six Nations, but to win a grand slam one is pretty tough.
“He’s a guy that works very hard with what he does and for him to achieve that with Wales is good to see as a teammate.”
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