It took just 308 days for Ben Franks to transform from Rugby World Cup-winning All Black to RFU Championship prop. But, having helped London Irish back into the Aviva Premiership, he has a message for his rivals: “It’s made me a stronger player.”
Franks’ 47th and final appearance for New Zealand came in front of over 80,000 fans at Twickenham as the All Blacks beat Australia to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second successive time. Less than a year later he found himself travelling between more humble surroundings as the Exiles played in front of 2,585 people at Bedford’s Goldington Road ground.
George Ford has underlined the “unbelievable, world-class” playing ability of his Leicester and England colleague, Manu Tuilagi, as he nears a return to first-team action.
Holders Leicester Tigers will begin their Anglo-Welsh Cup defence against Gloucester at Welford Road on Nov. 4.
It must have been something of a culture shock for the 33-year-old. He described his experience last season as an “eye-opener” but he went into the campaign in England’s second tier determined not to let his performances drop.
“For me it was a mental challenge,” Franks told ESPN. “I didn’t want to go down there and just let my standards slip and have excuses, ‘oh, I’m playing in the Championship or whatever’.
“So, I do feel mentally it’s made me a stronger player. It’s easy to get up when you’re playing a name team, like a Harlequins or a Leicester, and you’re going to be playing in front of 30,000 and the TV cameras are there.
“Go to Bedford, where you’re playing on the side of a hill with a few hundred people there and the only people who really care is the two teams. So, I take a lot out of that.”
In order to combat the threat of complacency Franks redoubled his efforts on the training pitch, preparing for games as well, if not better, than he would have done in Super Rugby or with New Zealand. To his satisfaction his teammates followed suit.
“I was only part of Irish for half a season really before they got relegated and from what I’ve seen, [it was due to] inconsistency in performance, inconsistency in preparation,” he said. “I thought the biggest wins last year were what we did Monday to Friday. Getting good habits in training, turning up as professionals as a whole.
“If people could see the differences that were made during the week, they were probably the biggest gains. Whether they were enough we’ll soon find out. But we feel confident ourselves and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Franks, left, joined London Irish after helping the All Blacks to a second successive Rugby World Cup crown. Craig Mercer/ActionPlus/Corbis via Getty Images
Despite those gains, the Exiles have not rested on their laurels as they prepare for their Premiership return. Proven internationals, including Napolioni Nalaga, Saia Fainga’a, Gordon Reid and Luke McLean, have been signed while Petrus du Plessis has arrived from champions Saracens.
Director of rugby Nick Kennedy has proved a steady hand on the tiller, too, and while they remain rank outsiders with the bookies to be involved in anything other than a relegation battle this season, there has been no talk of the drop during preseason.
Instead, Franks has told his teammates it is imperative not to start the new season with a “noose” already hanging around their necks.
“When I first arrived, relegation was a new thing for me and I got sick hearing about it,” he said. “It felt like a weight on your back the whole time.”
As the Kiwi himself admits, it remains to be seen whether the positivity around the club translates into results on the pitch. It might not have been a planned detour when he arrived in the UK, but Franks’ “grassroots” experience might yet pay dividends.
“Hopefully it’s been a positive thing,” he said. “Time will tell but if we are to be successful, it will be on the back of what we learned in the Championship.”
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