Ambitious Francis ready to stake his claim
By Neale Harvey
Fit-again Exeter Chiefs and Wales prop Tomas Francis says competition is driving him on as he targets a domestic and European club ‘double’ to boost his chances of an autumn Test recall.
Francis is 12 caps short of the 60 Wales appearances he needs to make discussions over his future Test availability redundant, and with an option to extend his Chiefs contract beyond its current expiry date next summer, he aims to make a compelling case to Wales boss Wayne Pivac.
Francis, now fully recovered from the shoulder injury suffered in last year’s World Cup semi-final against South Africa that cost him caps during the Six Nations, the 28-year-old tells The Rugby Paper: “It’s great to be back and I’ve played a lot of games I wouldn’t have been involved in had Covid-19 not struck, so that’s been one positive given everything else that’s going on.
“I was a long time out and whilst I might just have made it back for the end of the season in May or June, I’ve come back even stronger now and everything is feeling really good.
“Marcus Street did well in my absence and Harry Williams has held the shirt for a while, so there’s fierce competition now and that really drives me on. You can’t just come back and cruise, you’ve got to push it everyday and that can only going be of benefit to the entire group.
“As well as Harry and Marcus, Pat Schickerling and Alfie Petch are going well and we’ve just signed Matt Johnson from Exeter University, whose another big lad in the Chiefs mould who’ll be looking to do well. It’s been all go since my comeback but I just love being part of it.”
Having recently extended his Chiefs contract until 2021, with an option of another extension beyond that, Francis is acutely aware that his international future still hangs in the balance.
He said: “It was a no-brainer to stay and a decision I made pretty much on the spot, but it doesn’t affect anything right now and there’s the option for both parties to extend before March 31.
“If I haven’t got 60 caps, then from the end of this season I can’t get picked by Wales, so I still need 12 more and I don’t want to give up internationally rugby, so we’ll assess it as it goes along.
“Ideally, I’d like to stay at Chiefs, but I also want to play for Wales so all you can do is try and play well here, hopefully get Wayne Pivac’s attention and get selected by them. There’s no point thinking too far ahead, but at least I know I have an option to stay here, just for security.
“With everything that’s going on at other clubs and around rugby, it’s good to have that there, but it’s not in concrete yet. It all depends what happens over the next few months.”
After racing ahead in the Premiership, Chiefs have quick-fire league games against Gloucester and Saracens this week before taking on Northampton in their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final.
Can Chiefs stay the pace? Francis says: “We’ve got seven weeks left and the whole group is excited about what we can try to achieve. Our squad depth is awesome and you could see that at Bristol when we changed 14 players and still got the result, so that’s driving us on now.
“We want to keep the momentum rolling and whoever is playing, we just want to keep setting new standards and set the bar higher for the next lot to try and knock off. When we go into Europe, hopefully we can go up another level and just keep getting better and better.
“Personally, my own form is pretty good. After nine months without rugby it took a bit of time to get into it and there were a few dodgy scrums, but I’m getting around the park well and if I can help us win a double, hopefully I can get that call back into the Wales squad too.”
With a power-packed set of forwards ready to demolish everything in their path, Francis gives huge credit to unheralded forwards coach Rob Hunter. “Rob’s a world-class coach and he’s developed a pack that wasn’t full of star names into a phenomenal pack domestically and in Europe.
“He’s quite a calm man who tends to go under the radar, but he can send a rocket up your backside when he needs to and he puts in a lot of hard work and expects the same of us.
“His detail is second to none and he leaves no stone unturned, so I hope he gets the recognition he deserves one day. In fact, all the coaching staff here could be international coaches, but I don’t know if there’d be enough games for them because they enjoy the week-to-week grind.
“They’ve got unfinished business here and we have some big games to win as a group, but in future they could 100% be coaching international teams because they’ve got that quality.”
Citing the number of Exeter front rows who learned their trade in the Championship before being honed by Hunter & Co, Francis adds: “Jack Yeandle at Doncaster, Harry Williams at Nottingham and Jersey, Ben Moon in the Championship here, Alec Hepburn at London Welsh, myself at Donny and London Scottish and Luke Cowan-Dickie at Plymouth, we all played in the second tier.
“Playing against those big old boys in the Championship really brings you on as a front-five forward and then you work with Rob Hunter and it takes you up another level. Billy Keast had a year at the Pirates, too, so that’s great credit to the Championship as well as Rob’s work.”