Francis Saili: 'My target is St Stephen's Day because it's such a big game'
The Big Interview: All Black centre desperate to return to action and remind Munster supporters of his talents
With all the hype surrounding Munster Rugby and their brilliant seven-game winning streak at present, Francis Saili has almost become the forgotten man despite his impressive displays last term.
After successive injuries that have kept him out of the game since May 7, the 25-year-old two-time All Black is down the pecking order as he continues to rehab prior to his return over the busy Christmas period.
Springbok Jaco Taute is now the form player in the Munster midfield but this time last year it was all about Saili, and the former Auckland Blues centre needs to fight his way back into the team over the coming months.
A labrum tear in his shoulder, and subsequent bicep problems, have robbed Saili of the opportunity to continue on his impressive statistics within the Munster set-up.
Last season he played more minutes than any other Munster player - a stark contrast to the numbers from 2016-'17. He has not played a game, after it all unravelled towards to the end of his first campaign in Limerick.
"The initial injury happened against Dragons last season. It was near the end of the season and I did it in a tackle. I had to get MRI scans on it originally, I went and got an opinion from a specialist and they thought surgery would be the best for it," says Saili.
"As time went on, the front of my shoulder, my bicep tendon, was ruptured so I had to go back under the knife again to fix that.
"The bicep had happened afterwards which was a pity because I was a few months into my rehab. My shoulder wasn't feeling any good. I had to go back and see the specialist, get an MRI scan again.
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"That was the most frustrating part, it showed that there was a tear and I had to go back into surgery. It was a little frustrating at the time. But looking back on it I was glad I got it done.
"For me it was all about having to stay positive because that's the hardest part when you are injured and things are not going too well. I just wanted to be out on the field playing."
And there are some big games ahead for Munster with derbies in the Pro12 against Leinster and Connacht over the Christmas, before they return to Champions Cup action with a trip to Paris to take on Racing 92 on January 7.
But where they struggled last season, Munster have turned a corner and they look unstoppable following their seventh win in succession, an amazing 38-0 shut-out of Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park.
It was the latest in a long line of brilliant performances that Saili had to watch from the sidelines.
"Last season as hard and frustrating as it was at times, I just had to give it my best and do what I could for the province.
"The guys on the field are going really well at the moment which is awesome and I just want to be back out there showcasing what I have on the table. I know I have the ability to perform.
"If I can stay in that mindset, stay confident within myself and believe in myself everything should fall into place. I haven't shown my full abilities yet as frustrating as it was last season," says the former All Black.
Saili played ITM Cup for North Harbour and Auckland in the past, and he also won a World Rugby Junior Championship with the Baby Blacks.
He went on to become a star of Super Rugby with the Blues, and although he wore the coveted All Blacks jersey on two occasions, it was injury that prevented him from making a bigger impact for his national side.
Unfortunately, that has caught up with him again in Munster and he just hopes that the brilliant performances from guys like Taute won't leave him in the doldrums when he returns.
"Jaco has been playing really well and adding value. And that's the value of team sport. When you have a guy like Jaco playing well for our team it adds more motivation to our team because we want to put our best foot forward and we all want to help each other.
"All we want is results. If we can put our best foot forward each week, it's bigger than the game. We are trying to add value to our team but at the same time help each other out and get results.
"I am training at the moment. I am getting some training sessions in and it's been six-and-a-half months so it's been a while. My target is the game on St Stephen's Day and if not, the game the week after.
"But I am targeting St Stephen's Day because it's a big game. You want to be playing on the big stage against the best. Nothing better than playing against Leinster.
"I would love to be a part of it but at the same time I am just taking time with my rehab and making sure that I can come back 100 per cent to put up my hand."
But ultimately rugby is a team game, and Saili knows that no matter his own personal situation, the collective is more important. He just wants the team to keep pushing on now, and to build on their momentum against Leicester this weekend.
"We never settle on this, and we won't be comfortable. Each week is a building block towards where we want to be and where we want to go.
"We just know that each step of the way, and each game. It's going to be a battle and that's the beauty about it. Nothing comes easy, we are putting in the work that we can be proud of."