Piers Francis: From Starbucks barista to World Cup bolter
Swapping England for New Zealand helped the centre kick-start his professional rugby career.
Piers Francis has entered the luxury surroundings of England’s camp in Miyazaki reflecting on his time spent working in an Auckland branch of Starbucks as he attempted to launch his rugby career.
The World Cup bolter profited from Ben Te’o’s shock exclusion from Eddie Jones’ squad for Japan 2019 to claim one of the four centre spots, his ability to cover all three midfield positions adding to his value.
But prior to this summer’s series of warm-up matches, the little-heralded 29-year-old had won only four caps and three of those came as a replacement.
As a teenager he was cut from the Saracens academy, galvanising him to travel to New Zealand in the hope that the most thorough rugby education possible would realise his ambition of becoming a professional.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play professional rugby and I wanted to play for England,” Francis said.
“As far away as it seemed at the time, New Zealand were the number one team in the world and it seemed to be the best place to go. That is where I did my apprenticeship.
“It was a gap year. I finished school and wasn’t keen to go to university immediately. So it was branded to mum and dad that I would take a gap year.
“I knew in my head what I needed to do and that was to pursue the rugby as best as I could.
“I had a deferred uni place, but I couldn’t even tell you where it was. That was how interested I was.
“I had an old Kent coach who was coaching Auckland Marist under-21s. That was the only club I knew, so I hooked up with him and made contact with Marist.
“I played under-21s and the next year I made the first grade, then Auckland academy and things went from there.
My first job was at Starbucks in Queen Street, making coffees. I wouldn’t say I’m a professional coffee maker but I’ve done it
- Piers Francis
“I had to work. My first job was at Starbucks in Queen Street, making coffees. I wouldn’t say I’m a professional coffee maker but I’ve done it.
“Back then the machines were proper ones, they’re not the button machines they have now!”
The decision to move to Auckland truly bore fruit five years later when spells in New Zealand club rugby and with Edinburgh and Doncaster were trumped by a contract with Super Rugby outfit the Blues.
Over the course of 24 appearances across two years in one of the sport’s toughest competitions, he came to the attention of Jones who picked him to play for England in Argentina before he had represented new employers Northampton.
“I always felt the top was so far away where I was in England. The top level seemed almost unattainable,” Francis said.
“In New Zealand you get Super Rugby players and All Blacks who come back and play for their clubs.
“Being exposed to those guys made the gap seem closer. It really stimulated me. I was thinking, ‘They’re not the galacticos I thought they were.’ It fuelled the fire to keep at it.
“I was privileged enough to play with Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala – top level All Blacks. It just gives you the realisation that things are achievable.
“However big things might seem at 16-years-old, don’t let it go. Look where I am now – in a World Cup 31.”