Piers Francis took a punt as an 18-year-old in 2009 and moved from his home in England to try to better himself as a rugby player in New Zealand.
Now, having turned 22 a month ago, Francis finds himself fighting for a start in the Waikato No 10 jersey for their first game of the ITM Cup season on Sunday - ironically a jersey made vacant by Stephen Donald's move to England.
From Gravesend in Kent, where he played for the Maidstone club, Francis was a member of the Saracens academy at school for three years but at the age of 17 was released. "That struck a nerve and was probably half the reason for coming over here - to try and prove a point," Francis said.
When he finished school he didn't want to go to university straight away and convinced his parents he should come to New Zealand to try to improve his rugby, staying with family friends in Auckland and playing for the Auckland Marist club.
"I have a real passion for rugby and a big fascination for the rugby over here, so where better to go to try and learn to play the game better," Francis said.
"Mum and Dad said it was all right, so I came out."
He progressed through club ranks, playing under-21s, and then seniors and at representative level with an unbeaten Auckland under-20 team in 2010 and then last year in the ITM Cup squad, making seven appearances including one start as understudy to Gareth Anscombe.
"That was my first exposure to that sort of level. It was a great learning curve and quite a big step-up in physicality and speed-wise from club rugby, but one I enjoyed."
Offered the chance to join the Chiefs' wider training group, he transferred to Waikato this year and joined Hamilton Marist but a niggly groin injury sidelined him throughout the club season.
"That was frustrating, but it was good to see the boys get to the semis and I had a couple of caps for New Zealand Marist as well."
Francis revelled in his involvement with the Super Rugby champion Chiefs team.
"Considering the season the boys have had, it was great to have a bit of an involvement in that sort of scene and know what it takes to win a Super title, which the boys set out to do. Again, a great learning curve and I took lots from it.
"Hopefully I can take a lot from that and put it into the season coming up."
Francis, who is vying with Fraser-Tech's Sam Christie for the No 10 jersey, knows he has big boots to fill in the form of Donald.
"I haven't really met Beaver myself but he's held in high regard here and is a great player.
"They are definitely big shoes to fill but that won't worry me too much; I'll just play my game and do what I can do."
Francis said he had found it easy to fit into the Waikato way of doing things and said it was a great environment to be a part of.
"All of the boys are very nice and accommodating and I get on well with them, so that always helps."
Francis made the odd appearance off the bench at second five-eighth for Auckland last season but has mostly been a goal-kicking first-five throughout his short career, and he lists former England star Jonny Wilkinson as his idol while growing up.
His goal for now is just to have a good season and to help the team perform well.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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