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Is record-setting Test prop Owen Franks off the pace in northern hemisphere scrums?

All Blacks prop Owen Franks

OWEN Franks is in an ultra-exclusive club of one. He is the only front-row forward, and the only tight-head – the most gruelling, heavy-duty position on the pitch – to become a double World Cup winner, and a Test centurion.

Franks won two medals as the starting No.3 in the New Zealand sides that won the 2011 and 2015 finals, and then to cap a stellar international career crossed the 100-Test threshold against Australia in 2018, going on to make 108 appearances for the All Blacks in a decade-long international career.

Legendary Australian forwards John Eales and Phil Kearns are also part of the 21-strong group of players who have won the World Cup twice, as is Os du Randt, the celebrated Springbok loose-head, but none of them reached 100 caps, which gives you the measure of Franks’ extraordinary durability and quality.

It puts Franks in the most rarefied atmosphere there is in Rugby Union, at the apex of achievement alongside two other same-era All Black double world champions and centurions, his fellow Crusaders Richie McCaw and Sam Whitelock.

However, as Franks, 32, looks forward to getting back to work today at Franklin’s Gardens when Northampton meet Wasps, he will be hoping for some stability after a pretty turbulent 12 months in the day job.

It has been almost a year since he was the highest profile player to be axed from New Zealand’s 2019 World Cup plans when Steve Hansen left him out of the squad for Japan.

Then, having decided to follow his brother Ben, who is four years older and a fellow double world champion, by signing for Northampton at the start of the Premiership season, he first had to negotiate a thumb injury – and then the Covid lockdown.

The upshot according to Chris Boyd, the Saints director of rugby, is that in terms of his contribution so far, Franks is as far from being a self-satisfied Kiwi as you could get.

Fellow New Zealander Boyd does not mince words: “By his own admission, and by his own extremely high standards, I would think he is probably sitting at about a 3 out of 10.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that (the scrum) here is not better or worse, it’s just different, and it’s taken southern hemisphere props generally quite a long time to adapt to the way people scrum up here. It’s the way the referees interpret the scrum, he’s found that quite difficult to adjust to – and by his own high standards he’s not happy with where he’s at.

“But Owen’s the ultimate professional, along with Ben, and he’s told us that this is the best he’s felt in ten years, because he’s had a decent break. He’s certainly looking pretty frisky at training, and we expect a lot more of him yet.”

Getting to grips: Northampton Saints prop Owen Franks tackles seasoned Premiershiplock Dave Attwood. David Rogers/Getty Images

Franks admits that he’s been frustrated at times, but it soon becomes apparent in the interview that self-help is ingrained in his outlook, whereas self-pity is not.

“Lockdown’s been good to me, and I had my family with me all the time. My wife wanted to go back to New Zealand initially due to the Covid situation, but we’ve settled-in well and have been happy to be in the UK. Also, my bro said there would probably be lockdown, so I was able to get a bar, some weights, and a rower from a local supplier.”

Franks says that with the season re-starting with the Premiership title up for grabs, and the Saints, who are fourth in the table, already booked for a European Cup quarter-final against Exeter, the mood in the squad is “pretty excited”.

He adds: “It’s all there in front of us, and earlier this week when Boydy talked to the squad about being in the hunt in a couple of competitions, it brought it home.”

Franks says the biggest challenge of moving to England is going from an environment you know inside-out to one which is new.

“The biggest transition is going from the Crusaders, after ten plus years, and adjusting to the changes in the people you work with, as well as the lingo, and the combinations. I’m not where I wanted to be. In New Zealand most teams scrum in a similar way, whereas over here there’s a bit more of a fight on the scrum set-up to win the bind.

“Maybe there’s a bit more scrumming for penalties and playing games to influence the refs, but mainly it’s more about getting used to a different scrum set-up.”

So, what persuaded him to go to Northampton? “The opportunity to play in the Premiership was number one on my list, and I thought Northampton was the best option.

“I like the town and the area – the countryside is beautiful, similar to back home. Ben, who was here before retiring, gave me the inside info, which was very positive, and there was a connection with Boydy as a Kiwi coach. I also knew from the All Blacks camp about Wayne Smith loving his time here, and when my wife, Emma,contacted his wife, she was raving about it.”

Franks says there are definite similarities to the Crusaders in the way Northampton play. “The Crusaders have the ability to attack, but can also play a strong set-piece game, and Saints have the same tradition. In terms of team culture they also both stress a ‘team-first before self’ professionalism.”

Ask Franks if that ideology of selflessness made it even more difficult to accept being dropped just before the 2019 World Cup, and there’s no ducking.

“Of course it hurt. At the time I pushed it to the side. However, it’s fair to say that it affected me more a little further down the line. You start looking to apportion blame, but then you remind yourself that you are accountable for how you perform, and you’re not owed. It’s easy to be disgruntled if they say you are not the best anymore, but then you take it on the chin.

“I guess I had an inkling in the last week that I might not make the squad, but it did really come out of the blue. The end result is sh*t, and it must be that way for the coaches who have to tell you too.”

Has the World Cup winner’s medals and that 100th cap softened the blow? “Being out of the All Blacks made me appreciate those things much more. Before that I just brushed them off and got on with the next game. What I am most proud of is being able to stay in that team, establishing myself and then fighting off competitors for the shirt for ten years in one of the most competitive environments.

“With the All Blacks there are usually no second chances. If you are touted as a superstar you might get a second bite, but that’s it. You are held to high standards in everything, not just on the pitch, but also off the field as well – how you behave, and treat other people.”

Just how hard Franks and his brother had to work for the success they achieved is highlighted when he is asked for the moment that stands out most in his career.

He says: “The way me and my brother grew up, we had to work hard for everything. We didn’t have a huge amount of talent, or the natural size of some props. Going from high school to play for Canterbury I had to put on ten kilos to compete, whereas some people just have that physical capacity to be that big naturally. For me it is a constant battle to keep size on, and so it’s a necessity for me to do weight-training – but fortunately I enjoy it.

“So, if there is one moment, it’s that second World Cup final in 2015, away from home. In the first one in 2011 Ben was on the bench and didn’t get on, but in the second we both played a good part of it.”

As Franks discusses what goals he set himself as a relatively lean, young 6ft 1ins prop, and the biggest influences on his career, a fuller picture emerges of his determination.

“My dad, Ken, always encouraged us to set very high goals. For instance, in my first season in the All Blacks he really encouraged me to think big. He said the attitude was not just to be happy earning squad selection and being there, but to want to be the starter in your position. So, that was the goal he set me.

“Dad got me and Ben training early. Back in New Zealand when we were youngsters, weightlifting in the gym was not big, but with his guidance we were doing proper strength and conditioning work when we were 14 or 15. He wouldn’t look like your pushy parent, but he was really supportive in us staying focused and believing in ourselves, because we didn’t make the junior rep teams.”

Scott Hansen, the former Crusaders scrum-half, who is now back with the franchise as assistant coach to Scott Robertson, was another who set the performance bar high.

“Scott gave me a goal of 50 Tests for New Zealand. He was a half-back, but one of your tougher ones, a bit like a pitbull. He wanted me to be a prop who could pass, and defend, and scrummage. He pushed me really hard in training. Sometimes he would try to break me – and, to be fair, he probably did a couple of times – but it gave me a huge amount of confidence. He is one of my best mates.

“Ben was also paving the way, and very professional in terms of training and preparation, so I always thought if I can get close to doing what he’s doing, I’d be all right. With the All Blacks we both benefited from working with Mike Cron, a great scrum coach.”

Franks also took a close look at his own nutrition, and decided on a carnivore diet that he says has worked best for him during his career.

“If you do any diet and keep it simple you will probably find benefit because it is plain. A lot of the benefits from eating meat is that it is a complete food in which there are minerals and vitamins you don’t get in other food. So, predominantly, my diet is meat-based, and I use veg and fruit as a top-up.”

Destructive: Upcoming prop Ehren Painter. Getty Images

It is topping-up his career with success at Northampton that Franks has set his sights on now, and he says there is plenty of competition for places, including at tight-head – which is why he will be in the unfamiliar role of coming off the bench against Wasps.

“There is ambition and ability at Saints, and heaps of depth. At tight-head there is Paul Hill and Ehren Painter. Hilly has great skills and Ehren is one of the most destructive scrummagers I’ve seen. So, I’m just fighting it out and trying to compete for the starting spot. I want to contribute to Northampton being successful, and I am constantly seeking improvement as a player.”

That there is no sense of entitlement about Franks is a credit to him given his achievements as an All Black, but there is little doubt he intends to put his marker down at Saints, or about the formidable credentials behind that aim.

One area that it will not extend to is try-scoring, because he did not score a touchdown in any of his 108 Tests. Asked if that has grated on him, Franks says: “Only when people felt sorry for me. It didn’t bother me one bit. For me to pack down a solid scrum and see the backs score from good ball is all the reward I need. When it comes to scoring tries myself, I couldn’t really care less.”

That is why Owen Franks is the tight-heads’ tight-head, and why the Saints have signed the most durable Test No.3 the game has seen.

NICK CAIN

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