Monday 23 September 2019

Here to leave a legacy

Auckland's loss is Munster's gain and Francis Saili is keen to make big impression

Munster's Francis Saili
Munster's Francis Saili
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Many would contend that if you want to find the centre point of rugby's most fertile pasture then get the coordinates for the greater Auckland area. And if you want to discover the source of the game's loosest conveyor belt, then the same map will do just fine.

It would be hard to say how many of the 1.5 million people in that region pick up a rugby ball on any given day, but easier to say that it's more than any other comparable conurbation on the planet. Factor in the potent racial mix which makes New Zealand so powerful as a rugby nation, and it's not a question of picking low-hanging fruit - more a case of trying not to step on the bounty falling from the trees.

Supporters of the Blues will bang on about the yawning gap between what the team is fed and what it produces on the Super Rugby field, yet most of them would accept that there simply isn't room for everyone. Francis Saili falls somewhere in the middle: he was picked up by the system, and then left.

During the summer we came across one of the Munster crew who, not long after a training session in Limerick, concluded: "Jesus, your man Saili is something else!"

That description was inspired by a moment in a training game where the 24-year-old had thrown a long, try-scoring pass off his weaker hand, and did it without breaking either stride or sweat. You can never be sure what you're buying from the shop window will look as attractive when you get it home, but Saili's quality hasn't diminished in the transfer from Auckland to Limerick.

This afternoon in Paris was supposed to be confirmation of that for Munster fans. They have already got a handle on what he can offer. After a scary start when he was stretchered from the field on debut in pre-season he has completed almost every minute of his four Pro12 games, before last weekend's endurance test against Treviso in the Champions Cup. Away to Stade Francais however would have been his biggest stage yet. They'll need to calm him down a bit until next weekend, when he gets to play Connacht for the second time this season.

Keeping Saili on ice wouldn't be easy. Think Cuba Gooding Jr in Cameron Crowe's movie Jerry Maguire. He is animated on pretty much everything. Most topically, Jonah Lomu. Saili was not long walking and handling a rugby ball when Lomu took the 1995 World Cup by storm, but rugby's biggest ever name was still playing for the All Blacks when Munster's new recruit was settling in to secondary school in Auckland.

"I called him the GOAT 'cos he was the Greatest Of All Time," he says. "Every kid in New Zealand growing up wanted to be like Jonah. I remember some of my mates in school used to get their hair cut just to get the number 11 on their eyebrows. That's how much of a person he was to us, and we idolised him.

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"He was a freak of nature to be honest, and his legacy will live on. Man, he was the king of bump-offs! You'll see from his videos and highlights on YouTube. He had that amazing balance. And the one thing I'll take from him also was the game he came out with on PlayStation - Jonah Lomu Rugby: it was just the best game ever growing up!"

For Saili, a big part of that childhood was running around the schoolyard pretending to be his main man, Carlos Spencer, whose poster had pride of place in the youngster's bedroom. And then watching him in the flesh, offloading and banana-kicking his way around nearby Eden Park. Every other week Saili would take up position on the terraces with his dad and older brother Peter. Test matches were a bit steep in price, but you could watch the Blues for a decent price, and it was an opportunity for his old man to regale his two boys with stories of yore.

"He was from Samoa," he says. "They didn't have rugby balls so they played with coconuts! You can't get any better than playing with coconuts! He'd be telling me all these fibs and I'd be: 'Yeah, yeah . . . It's good, though. I used to get a massive buzz from it. We used to sit on the terraces. It just went from there. My dad, obviously it was his dream for us to play on Eden Park and the dream came true. I just wanted to push on, be the best that I could be."

And did that journey involve his dad getting to see both boys play there for the Blues?

"Yeah he did. It was a very special moment for us, to be honest. I used to go and watch my brother. When I was at school, he was playing professional rugby for the Blues, so my immediate goal was to play with him. Once I got my chance things started to fall into place for me. That's when I got hungry to push on."

Saili had got into St Peter's, a big Christian Brothers school in the suburbs, on the back of his rugby potential, and it delivered him thereafter to the Blues franchise via the New Zealand under 20s. His form there was good enough to take him to the next stage on his rugby road. If playing with Peter for the Blues had been the first goal, then lining out for the All Blacks was the second. It came early enough in his career: September 2013 in Hamilton, against Argentina, in the Rugby Championship.

"It was one of those games - a wet and rainy day, but man, best thing ever. Dream come true. Growing up wanting to play for the ABs, like every kid. When I found out I was starting that weekend, it was surreal. I remember the dressing room. When we were leading up to the game, I was like: it's just going to be another game. It didn't hit me till I bound up with the boys in the changing room. You look around at the names - 'I'm going to run out with them!' - and then I ran out. Doing the haka was the most unbelievable thing ever. You get flashbacks of watching the haka in the living room with your family and stuff. It was a very special moment for me, and my family."

He has two caps for his country. It's debatable if he would have had any more by now, for it became clear last spring that he wouldn't be part of Steve Hansen's World Cup plans. Given that he was coming to the end of his contract with the Blues, it landed him at a crossroads in his career. There was the prospect of moving to another franchise in NZ, maybe develop something good with another centre partner, but once he was in leaving mode it became a question of where more than if.

"I felt I was too comfortable in the Blues environment, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and be in a place where I could challenge myself because that's where you get the best out of yourself - see what your true character is.

"Then my agent said, 'Munster'. I was in South Africa (with the Blues) and got a call from Doug Howlett. I wanted to speak to someone who's a Kiwi who has also made the transition to Ireland. He couldn't speak any higher for the club; everything he said was spot on. When I had my Skype sessions with the coaches and the CEO, they sold it to me.

"This club was fitted for the values I live for. It's a family environment, we work hard for each other, we look after each other and that's what I look for. They were passionate about bringing silverware back to the club and that's what I'm after. I want to leave a legacy, be able to say I've done my best, given everything that I have."

Over the years Munster have manned their midfield with some influential characters. Trevor Halstead gave them almost guaranteed gain lines; Rua Tipoki was a scary character who could play some ball; Rua Tipoki was one of the best steppers European rugby has ever seen. Saili seems to have a mix of what the Kiwis in that triumvirate offered: great hands and feet, and has an edge to him. And it's what Munster need.

For how long they enjoy it remains to be seen. He signed a two-year deal but no sooner was he settling in than images of the All Blacks en route to retaining the World Cup were flashing across his screen. There is definitely unfinished business there, he reckons. And he is young enough to go back and pick up the story there when he has done what he came to do with Munster. And what does he hope to leave behind?

"It's more so memories at the end of the day and having to learn off guys like Earlsy," he says.

"He's unreal. I haven't known him for long but we can get along, we can see eye to eye on things. The passion that comes naturally. What Munster can give me, man, is memories. We're here to build history, legacy, we're here to bring back silverware."

At which point Auckland fans will be hoping to repatriate one of their own.

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