Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Piers Francis key signing for Tana Umaga

Blues No10 Piers Francis. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Blues No10 Piers Francis. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Piers Francis, a surprise package for the Blues this season with his consistently high-quality performances in the midfield, is looming as an important component for Tana Umaga as the rookie coach settles on his squad for next season.

Englishman Francis, 26, signed only a one-year deal with the Blues and is now in negotiations for an extension. Given his performances in the No12 jersey this year, culminating in winning the franchise's rookie of the year award and superb form in the Blues' final three matches of the season against the Hurricanes, Brumbies and Waratahs, his signature should be a priority.

Umaga took a punt on Francis, with whom he worked at Counties Manukau, and it paid off. The former All Blacks midfielder spoke of Francis' toughness to a sceptical media pack in the early rounds, a quality that proved true, but as Francis settled into his role, he displayed an increasingly wide range of skills.

He took the goalkicking duties off Ihaia West for the last three games and achieved an excellent success rate as well as taking some of the pressure off West, who shined as a result.

During the 34-28 victory over the Waratahs at Eden Park last Friday, which allowed Umaga's team to finish on a high with eight wins for the season, Francis frequently stepped into the first receiver role, allowing West more freedom slightly further out. Francis also beat five defenders to score a brilliant individual try against the Waratahs.

West, who has recommitted to the Blues, will need a back-up next season and Francis appears the best qualified. Sonny Bill Williams will claim the No12 jersey but, again, Francis has shown enough ability to suggest he could provide Umaga with an alternative there.

Williams, George Moala and Rene Ranger will compete for the two midfield positions, with Rieko Ioane also capable of playing centre.

Midfielder Male Sa'u, who also signed only a one-year deal, has already returned to Japanese club rugby.

The Blues' victory over the Waratahs, which followed their 40-15 thrashing of the Brumbies, allowed them to finish in 11th place. It was their best season since 2011, when they made the semifinals.

After the match against the team from Sydney, a quietly satisfied Umaga spoke of tough decisions ahead.

"This is the tough time now - this is the nature of our game," he said.

"You spend a lot of time with a group of players and it's never going to be the same next year. There are some guys who have got exit plans and we want to celebrate with them, and there are guys in limbo, and again, that's the nature of our business.

"It's bitter-sweet, really, where you're happy with obviously winning the last couple of games and the way you performed, but you're going to see some guys who didn't get a chance even in Super Rugby [leaving], but were there every day sweating their guts out and preparing this side to play as best they can."

- NZ Herald

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