Blues pivot Piers Francis switches British and Irish Lions match for England debut
Piers Francis is an example of how quickly plans can change. One minute the Blues first five-eighth is organising family travel plans to watch him square off against the British and Irish Lions; the next he fields an early morning call from England coach Eddie Jones telling him he will be on a plane to Argentina to fulfil a life-long dream.
June 7 had been a focal date for Francis. His parents and other close family were travelling first to Apia, where the Blues play the Reds in their final Super Rugby match before the Lions series, before carrying onto Auckland and Eden Park to witness the tussle with the tourists.
As an Englishman, having grown up in Gravesend, northwest Kent, before moving to New Zealand as an 18-year-old, the Lions fixture carried extra significance for Francis and his family.
Jones' call changed everything. Francis will now miss the Blues match against the Lions, with Warren Gatland's son Bryn expected to take his place either in the starting team or on the bench.
With 16 Englishman selected in the Lions squad, Francis will instead venture to Argentina, where he'll compete with England No 10 George Ford and Saracens' Alex Lozowski in two tests to make his debut. The England squad includes 15 uncapped players but also those overlooked for the Lions - captain Dylan Hartley, James Haskell, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown, Ford, Jonny May and Danny Care among them. New Zealand-born Sale wing Denny Solomona is also in line to debut.
"That fixture against the Lions on June 7 is a huge match. It was one I had made a lot of planning around with all the close family coming over," Francis said. "If there was ever a good enough excuse for me to miss that then the England tour has got to be it.
"It's been a life-long ambition. It is a little bittersweet but nevertheless I've always had aspirations for this. It's happened sooner than I genuinely anticipated but I'm hugely excited about the challenge ahead."
Flight routes of his parents from Samoa may have to be altered slightly.
"At the moment everything has been booked and paid for so we'll see. It's an opportunity I'm sure mum and dad would love to come along to but there's been a lot of planning to get the over as it is. It's a good conundrum to be in."
Only after he received a text from Blues coach Tana Umaga was Francis confident enough to start telling people about his England call-up.
The fact Jones phoned at 5am Tuesday made him question the legitimacy of the news.
"I'm not too sure he got his clocks right but luckily I was up at that point. I was still a little bit dubious as to whether it was legitimate and it wasn't a mate playing a prank on me but I got some confirmation after that it was actually Eddie Jones."
Francis returns to England at the end of the season to join Northampton but feels he would not be on the cusp of donning the Red Rose jersey had he not taken a punt on moving to New Zealand as a teenager.
"I definitely believe in the contribution New Zealand rugby has had on my career. The decision for me to move at 18 to where I believe the best rugby is being played was huge in my development. It's a bit of an unorthodox route but one that I look back on at this time and don't regret at all. It's got me to where I wanted to get to and now it's time to push on again."
Forwards: Will Collier, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ben Curry, Tom Curry, Charlie Ewels, Ellis Genge, Dylan Hartley (c), James Haskell, Paul Hill, Nathan Hughes, Nick Isiekwe, Joe Launchbury, Matt Mullan, Chris Robshaw, Sam Underhill, Harry Williams, Tom Wood.
Backs: Mike Brown, Danny Care, Joe Cokanasiga, Nathan Earle, George Ford, Piers Francis, Sam James, Alex Lozowski, Harry Mallinder, Joe Marchant, Jack Maunder, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Denny Solomona.