Saints centre Francis eager to return to Europe's top table
Though some may have seen this as a transition season at Saints, that is certainly not how Piers Francis has viewed it.
Inside the corridors of Franklin’s Gardens, the playing squad have been keen to do more than just enjoy a secure campaign in the middle of the Gallagher Premiership.
Belief has been high since boss Chris Boyd arrived to remove the clouds that has gathered over the Gardens.
And Francis, who has become a key man at inside centre under Boyd this season, makes no apologies for the confidence he shows at his most recent media session.
“It’s always a tricky one because you’ve got us in the inner circle who want to be at the top and we always feel like we should be at the top because of the calibre of player we’ve got here,” said Francis, who joined Saints from Super Rugby side the Blues in 2017.
“I understand from a wider perspective it’s expected to be a more gradual progression but we’re desperate to be having semi-finals footy for this season, wherever it might be. We outlined that among ourselves at the start of the season.
“I know a lot has changed this year so naturally people will be a little bit more reserved in terms of where we roughly are but from a players' perspective we believe we should be in the top four.”
Saints have been forced to strut their stuff in the European Challenge Cup this season, having only finished ninth at the end of a turbulent campaign in 2017/18.
They faced the Dragons, Clermont Auvergne and Romanian minnows Timisoara Saracens before losing at Clermont in an eventful quarter-final.
But there is no doubt that they want to return to Europe’s top table - the Champions Cup - next season.
“It (the Challenge Cup) has been interesting,” Francis said.
“We keep coming up against Clermont, who are obviously a pretty decent outfit, particularly at home.
“No offence, but for a club like ourselves we’re not interested in playing the Timisoaras and that.
“We want the big clubs to be coming here and we want to be going away to them because that’s how you grow as a club, how you grow as a player.
“You need to pit yourselves against the best so the Champions Cup is definitely where we want to be.”
Francis has been unlucky with injuries since joining Saints, making 21 appearances last season and 20 so far during this campaign.
But he has really flourished in the new attacking style that has been on show of late.
And he said: “I’ve really enjoyed this season.
“It’s always in reflection of last year, which was a tough year. There were lots of moving parts, it was my first year in top-flight English rugby and it posed a few problems.
“But I’ve really enjoyed this year and I’m eager for it to continue for a few more weeks.
And he added: “It’s always nice to get a little bit of stability in terms of home life and you get to know the good places and the bad places.
“We’re based more in the countryside and it’s a cool place to be.”
On his own form, Francis said: “I’ve had a couple of injuries but they’re inevitable for a small guy playing in the midfield.
“There’s been a decent amount of consistency for myself and for the back-line as well. That regularity of personnel and getting to know each other really helps.
“I’ve massively enjoyed it and hopefully we’ve got a few more weeks to come.”
Saints have a good crop of centres thanks to the emergence of the likes of Fraser Dingwall and Rory Hutchinson.
And New Zealand star Matt Proctor will arrive this summer to provide even more competition.
“It’s really healthy,” Francis said.
“I’ve obviously played my whole year at 12 and it’s really good when you’ve got young guys coming up and guys coming into the club that are pretty good players.
“It keeps you on your toes and always striving to get better.”