By Ali Stokes
A man that has unfortunately spent as much time on our televisions being interviewed or spotted in the crowd by hawk-eyed BT cameramen as he has playing rugby is former All Blacks centre Francis Saili, who has recently been given the all clear after struggling with on-going concussion issues that ruled him out for the nearly the entirety of last season.
The 27-year-old may currently be out of action rehabilitating a dislocated shoulder, but he was visibly excited to hit the ground running under new Harlequins Head of Rugby and former England defence coach Paul Gustard at the Gallagher Premiership fixture launch yesterday.
Speaking to Crashball Rugby, Saili explained how he traded a summer holiday for extra work with his club, diligently strengthening his injured shoulder.
“Yeah so literally no off-season, I stayed behind.” Saili said. “A lot of rehab, I’m just looking forward to the Gallagher Premiership. Obviously, I had a disappointing season last year with injuries. I’m excited for the new season coming up, I just want to be able to show what I’m worth and focus on a new club.”
While his shoulder injury may be a more straightforward issue to fix, the former Munster and Auckland Blues man took a mature, diligent approach to his predicament last season, biding his time and waiting to receive the recent news that he has been cleared to return to play.
“Yeah it’s good, I just had my appointment on Tuesday and everything went well, he said that I’m all good. My next appointment is next year, for the next check-up, but I’m all clear at the moment.
“It’s a serious injury to the brain so I didn’t want to take that lightly. It’s not like when you hurt your knee and you can still push on and train to push the barriers.” He explained. “But yeah, I had to settle down, go through the procedure [return to play protocol] and make sure I got it right before I came back because at the end of the day I didn’t want to get another concussion and get knocked out again. I don’t think my wife would have liked that either! But it’s all good and I Just can’t wait to get back."
A freshly rebranded Premiership trophy, donning the colours and name of Gallagher at the Premiership fixture launch at the BT Tower earlier this week.
With a new season comes fresh new challenges. Saili may have shaken his concussion issues, but he will have to contend with the competitive midfield Harlequins currently boast. Talented youngster and touted future England star Joe Marchant, newly capped Scottish international James Lang and the latest squad addition Ben Tapuai, capped seven times by the Wallabies, all compose a competitive midfield axis for Gustard to select from.
It would seem Saili is set to compete with Lang and Tapuai, keen to earn his way into a starting role as inside centre, admitting it to be his position of choice.
“I like twelve,” he explained, “but there are a good few guys in the midfield at the moment, lots of competition. But it’s good; it’s healthy competition as well, so we’re just looking forward to that. We’re happy to help each other out, to make sure that whoever steps in each week, that we give them as much confidence as possible for our mix of games.”
Q: How would you sum up Paul Gustard’s influence so far at Harlequins?
A: "Influential. Confident. Ambitious."
Saili continued, “He’s confident in what his intent and the main thing on his mind, and all our minds, is that we want to win the Premiership. With that comes a way you have to train, like being champions. He’s done a great job with the England team as well, and also Saracens. So he’ll be bringing that type of influence to our team, it’ll be great. At the moment, the last three or four weeks have literally been running. He wants us to play a running, expansive game.”
The return of Francis Saili is a moment eagerly anticipated by more than just Harlequins fans, with Premiership viewers across the country eager to see the New Zealand star work his magic at the Stoop and other various stadiums. If Paul Gustard can find enough luck to have Saili fit and firing throughout the season, the centre could prove a destructive presence in Quins’ midfield.
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