Rugby World Cup 2019: From Starbucks to Sapporo – the Piers Francis story on how he achieved his rugby dream
England centre bolted from the fringes of the squad to make the plane to Japan, but it has been a well-travelled journey for Piers Francis to prove he belongs on the big stage
England arrived at their Miyazaki training base on Tuesday without any repeat of their Tokyo travel nightmare to begin 10 days of gruelling condition in intense heat, with Eddie Jones set to put the squad through a programme akin to a pre-season.
With searing temperatures set to comfortably exceed 30 degrees Celsius and humidity levels above 80 per cent, England will be camped in the southern island of Kyushu in the seaside resort of Miyazaki until next Wednesday, when they will travel to the northern island of Hokkaido ahead of their opening Rugby World Cup match against Tonga.
Having been stranded at Narita International for more than five hours after their arrival in Tokyo – a result of the travel chaos caused by Typhoon Faxai in the early hours of Monday morning – England enjoyed a far smoother flight to Miyazaki, where a welcome party was waiting at the airport to greet Jones and his side.
One of those suprise names among the arrival party was Piers Francis. The utility back was a shock selection for the 2017 Argentina tour when he was selected by Jones while still playing in New Zealand with the Blues, but while he has remained on the fringes of the England squad throughout the ensuing two years, he was not one of the fancied individuals vying for World Cup selection.
Yet through a combination of impressing Jones and making the most of Ben Te’o’s omission, Francis has made the cut. “I was pretty overwhelmed,” said Francis. “I found out the same time as it was announced. I was put in a WhatsApp group, but I was never officially told I was in the 31 – so was still awaiting the announcement.”
Francis’s career progression is unlike any other in the squad. The centre, who is equally adept at playing fly-half, found himself released by the Saracens academy. A two-season stint in New Zealand resulted in a move to Scotland with Edinburgh, only to be released and once again head back to the Land of the Long White Cloud to resume his career with Auckland while juggling jobs to earn a living.
“That was huge. I was with Saracens in the academy and they realised me. But I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play professional rugby and I wanted to play for England. As far away as it seemed at the time, New Zealand were the No 1 team in the world and it seemed to be the best place to go. That is where I did my apprenticeship.
“It was a gap year. I finished school and wasn’t keen to go to uni immediately. So it was branded to mum and dad that I would take a gap year. I knew in my head what I needed to do and that was to pursue the rugby as best as I could.
“I had a deferred uni place, but I couldn’t even tell you where it was. That was how interested I was.
“Getting released really fuelled the fire and really cemented what I wanted to do, regardless of people’s opinions.
“I played under-21s and the next year I made the first grade, then Auckland academy and things went from there. My first job was at Starbucks in Queen Street, making coffees. I wouldn’t say I’m a professional coffee making but I’ve done it. Back then the machines were proper ones, they’re not the button machines they have now.
“I’d train on Tuesday and Thursday nights and play on Saturdays but I’d also train with the academy at 5.30-6am and then go to work and then train again in the evening.”
The 29-year-old was selected for England’s tour of Argentina after agreeing to return home to join Northampton Saints, where he has developed into one of their key playmakers and subsequently keeping himself on Jones’s radar. There is something about the Kent-born midfielder that Jones has taken a liking too, as while three of his four international appearances came from the bench, Jones has been keen to keep him in and around the squad.
Throughout the summer, Francis’s name remained on the squad list as others such as Te’o and Danny Cipriani fell by the wayside, while he has also been preferred to Joe Marchant, who remained with the team until their departure for Japan, and he featured in every one of England’s four warm-up games, starting three and coming off the bench in the record win over Ireland.
Francis does not know why Jones has taken such a liking to him, but he does believe that his Kiwi rugby education has something to do with where he is now.
“I always felt the top was so far away where I was in England,” he added. “The top level seemed almost unattainable. In New Zealand you get Super Rugby players and All Blacks who come back and play for their clubs. Being exposed to those guys made the gap seem closer. It really stimulated me. I was thinking: ‘They’re not the galacticos I thought they were.’ It fuelled the fire to keep at it.
“At Marist I played with the Saili brothers...it was just cool to rub shoulders and get snippets of information from them. At Maidstone I wouldn’t have had the chance to play with Billy Vunipola and have a conversation with him. If you’re in London South East 2 you don’t get the exposure to the top guys.
“I was privileged enough to play with Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala – top level All Blacks. It just gives you the realisation that things are achievable. However big things might seem at 16 years old don’t let it go. Look where I am now: talking to you guys and in a World Cup 31.”
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