Saints farewell interview: Piers Francis

It's fair to say that life at Saints was far from plain sailing for Piers Francis.

By Tom Vickers
Sunday, 31st July 2022, 7:00 am
Piers Francis
Piers Francis

From being told that the club were signing Dan Biggar to play in his position before he had even kicked a ball, to being informed that he would not be offered a new deal ahead of next season, he didn’t have it easy.

And that's before you list all of the unfortunate injuries he suffered during his five-year stay at the Gardens!

But none of that has even affected how committed Francis has been not only to the club but to getting the very best out of his body.

Now 32, he has started a new chapter at Bath.

And what fans of the West Country club can be sure of is that Francis will give everything he can to drive them forward from start to finish.

Because if ever a player could possibly give more than 100 per cent, it is the Gravesend-born back.

A sign of his determination is that while some players may have been on holiday during the summer, Francis has been working in 35-degree heat at the IMG Academy in Florida.

So desperate is he to get in the best possible shape year on year that he makes an annual pilgrimage to America to train with a hard taskmaster he met on a visit to Arizona.

And Francis hopes the extra mile - or several - that he has gone once again this summer will stand him in good stead for his fresh start.

"There probably aren't many other players training in 35-degree heat in Florida before they go into a pre-season, but it's part of how I can sleep at night and justify the club that I'm with supplying me with a job and giving me and my family a way of life," Francis said, speaking from America before he linked up with Bath earlier this month.

"It's just who I am.

"As much as the mental side of the game is massive, if you're physically not right you can't get on the field.

"If the body is in good shape and good nick, then I can really work on my mental side, but that comes after being fit and healthy physically.

"I pushed the envelope a bit and came unstuck a couple of times but it's only because I want to do as much as I can when I can.

"It's a shame that the injury title does get tagged with my name a bit at Saints, which is frustrating from a personal perspective.

"It's part and parcel of the game, perhaps more for me than for others.

"But I was really unlucky because a lot of the injuries I've had have been overuse injuries or concussions, which is a hot topic, and there's periods of time you have to sit out for.

"Before, there were times when you had a bit of a head knock and you would play the next week because you showed no symptoms and you felt great. Quite rightly, the protocols for concussion are now in.

"But injuries have hampered me a bit, particularly last season, and it's all led to the point of potentially moving on and that being a factor naturally for Saints.

"Me not being able to be on the field enough has been a factor.

"Injuries are out of your control and there have been a lot of overuse injuries where I've tried to get myself in really good shape physically and probably boiled over on that side too much.

"It's forced my body to break in ways it doesn't for others because I try to push the envelope as far as I can."

Francis never had any desire to leave Saints this summer, but there was no contract offer on the table so his time at the club was up.

"I'd love to say I had many options to choose from but I'd probably be lying if I told you that," he said, laughing slightly.

"Unfortunately there was no longer a future at the Saints but the club told me that, and in a nice manner. They gave me time.

"It's obviously a difficult conversation to hear when you feel you've potentially got more time at the club and it's cut short.

"But I could see that coming and I think the change is really good for me.

"I always wanted to remain at Saints and I didn't necessarily want to go to another club because I feel I'm a loyal person and I give everything I've got.

"But it wasn't in my hands and that's okay.

"I didn't see Bath as a real direct rival to Saints so I was at ease with that.

"I wouldn't have gone to someone up the road - that was never going to happen.

"I'm very excited and hugely respectful to Bath for giving me a chance to stay in England because I'm English, that's where my family is and I want to play for England.

"I was only going to stay in England because I've still got ambitions I want to fulfil in my own head and I couldn't go anywhere else if I wanted to fulfil that.

"Bath's going to be totally different from every aspect, from inside of rugby to outside of rugby.

"I'm excited for the change because it means you're evolving.

"Saints was a very special time, but it was time to move on as well.

"People like Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and Alex Waller have become club stalwarts but my pathway is different and I'm excited.

"I am excited - and I have to be excited.

"Bath had a tough season last year but they are a good club and it's exciting to work with the coaches they've got."

To say Bath underperformed last season would be an understatement.

The side from The Rec finished bottom of the Gallagher Premiership table, winning just five of their 24 league games.

But Francis has been part of Saints sides that have gone through tough times so he will look to use his experience, and his personal playing development, to propel his new club up the Premiership table.

"Five years in any player's time is massive, especially for me, going from 27 to 32," said Francis, who joined Saints from Super Rugby side the Blues back in 2017.

"It's a massive span of time to grow and experience a new league in the Premiership.

"If you look at the Premiership and Super Rugby, they're almost two different sports when I look at it now.

"They're just so different, so experiencing a new league and what's needed for this league was interesting.

"It's a long season, it's tough, the weather can be harsh to you and it's a high pressure environment of getting results, which is why I love sport because it's black and white - you win or you lose.

"We all love the process of it.

"I think I developed an understanding of the Premiership, which I hope will stand me in good stead to lead this group at Bath, because I feel there's massive potential there.

"It's about unlocking it and I'm excited to try to help with that.

"I've been developing my game as a 12 and understanding that defences are very different in the Premiership to Super Rugby and any other league.

"I feel my game has developed enormously, more from a truly understanding perspective of what's needed and what's required."

Francis had initially headed to Saints as a fly-half, with then boss Jim Mallinder keen to utilise him at 10.

But things changed pretty quickly in that respect, meaning the former Edinburgh and Doncaster man had to adapt to wear the 12 shirt on a weekly basis.

"I was playing 10 at the Blues at the time and those were the conversations I was having with the Saints," Francis explained.

"The ironic thing was that before I was walking out for my first training session, Jim told me they were signing Dan Biggar (who would join Saints a year later).

"It was good but also confusing.

"Jim illustrated that Dan would be away for big parts of the season so they wanted another 10 at the club.

"The way things have evolved - I've loved working with Dan in a 12 capacity.

"The 12 jersey wasn't too unfamiliar for me and I really enjoyed that, working with Dan because everyone knows he's a great player.

"To be able to be on the field with him at the same time was a real bonus.

"It was a strange introduction to life at Saints for me because I hadn't put the boots on yet and we had a world-class 10 coming in, but that was a great vision of Jim's to have us both there."

Moving to Saints meant Francis was eligible for an England call, and the Red Rose wasted no time, naming him in their squad for a summer tour of Argentina before he had even arrived in Northampton.

Francis has gone on to win nine England caps, including representing his country at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and he remains determined to add to that tally during his time at Bath.

But for now, he is just getting set to get acclimatised in his new surroundings while reflecting on his stay at Saints.

"My time at Saints has been great," Francis said.

"It was a real whirlwind of a time getting to the club and the start of it was great.

"It was good to come back home to England and fulfil international dreams that I still have a massive burning desire to continue with.

"It's been good at Saints, particularly early on in my time there.

"I've got full respect for Jim (Mallinder) for bringing me to the club and I really appreciate him doing that for me.

"It also was exciting when Boydy (Chris Boyd) came in and the first season under him we had a fair amount of success in relative terms.

"I was fully involved in that and it was rewarding.

"It's a great club with a great following and you get a really good rugby feel to Northampton, which is kind of what I was experiencing in New Zealand.

"It's a down-to-earth rugby community with a connection to the club.

"It's evolved, which is what happens day to day, and it's been great, but Bath's new now and I'm excited about that as well."

Francis admits it will be strange to return to the Gardens to play against Saints this season.

And he knows that Bath will be in for a real challenge in that fixture, which will take place on the weekend of February 4, as he feels the black, green and gold will continue to go from strength to strength under new boss Phil Dowson.

"I think the club's in a great space and I don't think many people would disagree with me there," Francis said of Saints.

"There's a great crop of youngsters that are hungry and talented.

"We were in the Premiership semi-finals this year, which we hadn't been since 2018 so that's a great position for any club to be in.

"The aim for any club in the Premiership is to make play-offs because then it's anyone's game so from that perspective the club is in a great space.

"They've got big European fixtures, which was obviously a side of our season that we felt we didn't do as well as we could have in.

"I think European games are special because you get to play teams other than those in the Premiership and you get to experience different away stadiums.

"The club is in a great place, there's a great crop of players coming in and as long as Andy (Miller) keeps that pitch at the Gardens as good as it is, any team coming there will have to put their fast shoes on and get ready for a fast game.

"They're in a great space and I've got full faith in Phil and Sam (Vesty) and Matt (Ferguson) and everyone else involved that they've got the right crop there to push on, but I want Bath to do better than them this season.

"It will be very strange to go back there because I haven't been in the away changing room but I don't think it's a great one.

"It will be cool and hopefully I'll be playing well and in the team.

"It's one I'll keep an eye on in the calendar and it will be exciting."

Finally, Francis reflects on his highlights at Saints, though he does struggle to single anything out as he clearly enjoyed his stay in its entirety.

"It's difficult to pick certain things but the friendships are one, even though I'm considered a bit of a lone wolf," Francis said.

"The development of my game and understanding what the Premiership takes has been great.

"Playing great footy has been good, working with Boydy's style and pushing the envelope in tempo.

"I really enjoy that side of things and that's been really fun and enjoyable.

"Being in big fixtures and doing well in those is why I play the game and it's great to have experienced them.

"It's been great for my mum and dad to come up to most games, and to experience my rugby journey with family has been great."