He is the surprise package of Tana Umaga's backline, the man from the English county of Kent who made his debut for the Blues in the win over the Jaguares and has kept his place in the No 12 jersey since.

Piers Francis hasn't had it easy, either. The 25-year-old injured his neck and was taken from the Waikato Stadium pitch on a stretcher in his team's narrow loss to the Chiefs, but started the next match against the Sharks at Eden Park.

Even Umaga, a notoriously robust midfielder during his 74 tests for the All Blacks, has praised Francis' toughness.

He is also seen as one of the best communicators in the Blues' backline, which is how Francis has come to find himself outside No 10 Ihaia West in Umaga's starting line-up, via an unorthodox route.


Francis arrived in Auckland in 2009 and played for the Auckland Marist under-21s before being accepted in the Auckland Rugby Union's academy.

"I finished school and I didn't want to necessarily go straight to university," he said. "I took the leap of faith to live the rugby dream and thought where better to come than New Zealand where obviously the All Blacks are regarded as the pinnacle of the sport.

"It was a bit of a step at the time but reflecting back now it's one of the best things I've done."

He returned to the United Kingdom three years later and played for Edinburgh but came back to New Zealand last year, playing a season under Umaga at Counties-Manukau, and making the Blues squad many years after a family friend who lives in Auckland's North Shore sent him a Blues jersey from the team's glory Super 12 years of the 1990s.

"It was the first Super Rugby jersey I had been given," Francis said. "Dad wasn't a big one for Sky television so we didn't get to watch too much but I remember watching some early morning matches and some ITM Cup games. It seemed a million miles away at the time so it's quite funny to be out here and playing and experiencing it."

The young man from Gravesend is one of the few Englishmen in the competition. There was lock Matt Symons, who played for the Chiefs for two seasons in 2014 and last year, and international flanker James Haskell, who played for the Highlanders in 2012, plus No10s Danny Cipriani (Rebels) and Andy Goode at the Sharks, but Francis is a rarity in the current competition, not that he dwells on it.

"I believe there is a Scot at the Stormers and maybe an Irishman at the Rebels, but I think I'm the only Englishman about. It's nice I guess.

"I'm still learning my trade. I'm really enjoying my time here and the opportunities I've been given.

"The first game against the Jaguares was a big deal for me. It's nice to get that under my belt and really concentrate on my training and improving."