EDINBURGH RUGBY new boy Piers Francis sets out tonight on a journey that could ultimately see him prove his doubters at Saracens wrong.
The 22-year-old stand-off/centre, who signed a two-year deal at Murrayfield last month, is hoping he can make his debut from the bench in this evening’s Heineken Cup clash with Racing Metro in Paris.
Having been released by Saracens – another of Edinburgh’s European Cup group rivals – as a teenager on grounds that he was unlikely to develop the physique needed for the professional game, the Englishman headed to New Zealand in a bid to get his career back on track.
With Edinburgh now having given him a chance, he would love nothing more than to have cemented his place in the team in time for the trip south to face his old side next month. “[After leaving Saracens] I took myself off to New Zealand, as it’s the hardest place in the world to play rugby and I felt if I could prove myself there, I could do it anywhere,” said Francis, now a solid 5ft 10in and 14st 3lbs.
“Looking back, that was a pretty big call to make as a teenager, especially as my dad David [who captained the Medway club from scrum half, stand off and centre] had been a real guiding light so far as rugby was concerned.”
It was, though, a call that provided massive life experience as well as a stint with the Auckland Academy and, later, the Waikato provincial team.
At Waikato, he helped capture New Zealand’s iconic Ranfurly Shield Trophy from Taranaki towards the end of last season before making a successful defence against Hawkes Bay.
When Edinburgh came calling, however, he was ready to return to the UK. “Compared to when I went to New Zealand in my teens, I felt better able to make a judgment call when Edinburgh showed interest in me.
“I had expressed interest in heading back and some positive chats with [coach] Michael Bradley led to a pretty easy decision. Now I’m looking forward to trying to play my way into the team from the bench.”
The return fixture with Sarries when he may have the chance to show how much he has developed comes early in the new year. If he gets the chance tonight, however, the first priority for Francis, whose family will be at the match in Paris tonight, is do enough to book a first appearance at Murrayfield for next Friday’s return leg with Racing Metro. “It’s is all a bit surreal to be this close to playing with and against many players I have followed and used as an inspiration, but I’m ready to take my chance. If it comes against Racing, it’s good that my family will be sitting in the stand.”
Another inspiration is Francis’ fellow son of Kent, John Gallagher. Gallagher (ex-Blackheath) never quite cut the mustard on home soil but after emigrating to New Zealand his career soared to the extent he found himself at full-back in the All Blacks side which won the inaugural 1987 World Cup.
“I recently had the pleasure of meeting John Gallagher who is involved with Kent rugby,” said Francis. “It was reassuring to have confirmed what a New Zealand rugby environment can do to lift a player but all I am really thinking about is trying to slot in at Edinburgh and help the team progress.”