Rugby: Composed Francis guiding Counties Manukau

By Campbell Burnes

Piers Francis of Counties Manukau. Photo / Getty
Piers Francis of Counties Manukau. Photo / Getty

The Counties Manukau Steelers play an open, style of rugby that, for the most part, serves them well.

But on occasion, their excitement needs to be tempered. That's when you need a settled exit strategy or playing for position when there is a gale force wind right behind you. That's when a composed head comes in handy.

Step forward Piers Francis.

The 26-year-old is in his second campaign with the Steelers and is the guiding hand at first five.

Other than his goalkicking, which sits at 69 percent - though he is better than that - and his solid defence or swift passing, Francis provides that crucial voice and direction outside Augustine Pulu for a young backline full of talent. Not to mention the priceless ability to punt off either foot.

Steelers coach Darryl Suasua worked with Francis at the Bombay club last season.

"The good thing about Piers is that he's a key leader on and off the field. He spends a lot of time making sure players have clarity, so he's pretty valuable for us," says Suasua.

The 2016 Mitre 10 Cup has been filled with all sorts of drama and action for the Steelers and, in particular, Francis.

Against Wellington, he was high-hurdled by Wellington's Vaea Fifita in an astonishing piece of 'athleticism' that might have broken his jaw had things gone awry. Against Taranaki, his ear was cut so badly he needed a heap of stitches. Now he wears headgear, more to prevent further gashes and cuts, rather than a legacy from concussion in the Counties Manukau club final.

The man himself has been tweaking his goalkicking this week, unhappy at some of his technique last weekend in the 16-14 win over Otago.

"I'm just trying to get back to how I was kicking before. I've been kicking abnormally, which is frustrating. I'm reverting back (sic) to old techniques which have worked," he says.

A repeat of how he kicked in last month's 48-20 win over Hawke's Bay, the Steelers' most complete display of 2016, is the aim. He scored 23 points, including a drop goal, that night in Napier.

Francis passed the kicking duties to Joe Reynolds against Otago, and the latter landed the winning goal in the final minute.

Despite Canterbury having little to play for in tomorrow's Premiership fixture in Pukekohe, Francis is expecting nothing less than a stern challenge from the favourites and defending champs.

"Any team that's guaranteed a semifinal wants a good performance leading into it. But we have to win, so you'd like to think our attitude and accuracy will be right up there."

He knows they deserve to be in the top four after some "gut-wrenching losses", but they will need to prove as much tomorrow, where just one competition point will be enough to qualify.

Once the Mitre 10 Cup is done and dusted, he can turn his thoughts to the second year of his Blues contract. He brought direction to the improving franchise from No 12 outside Ihaia West in 2016, but his role will be different in 2017.

"Probably from a Blues coaching staff point of view, they see me more as a 10, just with the likes of midfielders they've signed in the off-season (such as Sonny Bill Williams). There's some big-time players in there. But it's always nice to have that dual role ability."

Blues coach Tana Umaga dropped into Steelers' training yesterday to catch up with his men Francis, Pulu, Pauliasi Manu and Jimmy Tupou.

As for higher honours, Francis just laughed when he was asked if Eddie Jones had been on the blower. The reality is he would be well down the England pecking order, behind Owen Farrell, George Ford, Danny Cipriani and probably even the young comer Harry Mallinder. But Jones is a rugby nut who will know all about Francis and will have an eye on him from afar. Francis himself will only admit to enjoying his rugby in Godzone at the moment. Besides, he will soon qualify for New Zealand on residency...

*Live commentary of the Counties Manukau-Canterbury match is on Radio Sport and iHeart Radio from 2.35pm on Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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