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15 November 2017

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Home beckons budding rugby player

Home beckons budding rugby player

From St Paul’s to Super Rugby, Tom Franklin is making his mark in the rugby world.

Tom never dreamed of being an All Black. Sure, he entertained the idea like any young Kiwi would. But for the Bay of Plenty native, rugby was about playing with his mates and having fun.

Tom (Sargood 2004 – 2008) grew up in the small beach town of Opotiki – about two hours away from Tauranga along the North Island’s serene east coast. In a town with a population of just under 5000, Tom spent his time helping his parents out on the kiwifruit and avocado orchard, picking fruit for a few years before he picked up a rugby ball at age five.

“To be honest I was never really good at it,” he said.

If that was true, things changed when a 12-year-old Tom moved to boarding at St Paul’s Collegiate School. Maybe there was no change to his mindset – he still just wanted to run around in the mud with his friends and cause mischief – but certainly, his talents lay on the rugby field.

Tom hit the growth stages of his teenage years and transformed into a formidable lock forward. His talent was quickly picked up by 1st XV coach Andrew Gibbs – who Tom admits had a profound impact on his rugby career.

“We were expected to turn up to every training and train hard, just like you would in an All Blacks camp. He sort of turned St Paul’s rugby around and had a big influence on me.”

Tom was a Sargood House boy, and by definition alone, was a mischievous lad. “I’ve grown up a lot since St Paul’s, and I look back on what was an awesome experience there,” he said.

“We were definitely the trouble-makers. Some of the best memories I had were in that house – probably nothing I can put in a magazine, but it was awesome times.

“All my best mates are St Paul’s boys and we still hang out a lot. It’s an awesome school and we had some moments I will cherish forever.”

Through the premier school competition, Tom was selected for his first-ever representative side – the Waikato U18s. “I was just stoked to be there,” Tom said. “I never thought I’d have the chance to make it.”

Even after making the U18s, Tom wasn’t convinced rugby would be a career. He left St Paul’s and made the move to Otago to study – though he admits the lure of Dunedin’s student life was a determining factor more than anything else.

But moving further away from home didn’t help Tom escape his destiny for a rugby career. He played club footy in Otago where the representative honours kept on coming. First it was the Otago U19s, then it was the New Zealand U20s.

“That was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Tom said. “So I started training hard and getting really stuck in.”

From there Tom moved into Otago’s Mitre 10 Cup setup, which he mixed part-time with his studies. Once he graduated – with a degree in business management – the Highlanders came knocking, and that’s when Tom began thinking, maybe he could make something of this.

He helped the side to their first Super Rugby title in 2015 and looked back on an explosion of events that he never thought would be possible. And it all culminated in 2016 when Tom was selected in the All Blacks wider training squad.

“It’s everyone’s dream,” he said. “If you play footy that’s what the goal is. The closer you get to it, the more you think maybe you can. But it was never really something I believed I could do until a few years into my Highlanders career.”

However, despite making the squad, and a handful of training squads thereafter, Tom is yet to receive his first cap. It seems to have become somewhat of an adage – if you want to be an All Black, you have to be patient. Some of the country’s best players have missed out on racking up All Blacks caps, simply because of the depth of New Zealand rugby – Charles Piatau and Steven Luatua are two that spring to mind.

For Tom, it’s perhaps even tougher.

His competition – Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – are arguably the world’s best locking combination, and both just 26 and 28 years old respectively. But that won’t stop him lapping up every minute of the experience.

“Every time you get to go into All Blacks camp it’s pretty special,” he said. “You sort of just go in there with wide eyes and learn everything you can and put your best foot forward but it’s just an amazing experience.

“It’s awesome to shadow those guys and see how professional and dedicated they are. To see how serious they take that gig is pretty inspiring.”

And that’s the key difference for Tom. He says the Highlanders and Super Rugby are all about being yourself. The environment is more laid back, the attitude is different – more fun, less stress. It’s akin to a school if you will. The All Blacks, on the other hand, are the army.

“They have a lot more expectation on them and a lot more pressure,” Tom said. “In terms of work, everyone is taking it just a little bit more serious, and you can’t really afford to relax at any time.”

Perhaps that’s why the likes of Retallick and Whitelock are so hard to de-throne. Despite Tom’s determination, he knows it’s a big ask to topple those two, and time is short.

“I’m getting on and there’s a certain point where they stop selecting guys like me,” he said. “I floated the idea of leaving at the end of this year, but I thought I’d give it another year and another crack.

“Those boys are the two best in the world but you never know what’s going on, injuries can come along and stuff like that.”

Tom now has a big decision on his hands. With the lure of overseas contracts becoming an increasingly attractive prospect for many Kiwi rugby players, he has the chance to secure his future in rugby.

However, that decision will be at the expense of his Super Rugby and All Blacks career. While not totally convinced, he’s already put the wheels in motion should a profitable overseas contract present itself – moving from Otago back to the Bay of Plenty for this year’s Mitre 10 Cup competition.

“It was a tough decision to make. But I haven’t looked back on the bay since I left for St Paul’s at 12 years old.

“It’s been a long time and I might be looking at going overseas to play footy next year, and I just want to spend a bit of time at home so it was more a family based decision than anything.”

Tom didn’t become a professional rugby player because he worked to the bone. He didn’t get selected to the All Blacks because everyday he woke up with a single motivating dream. Rather, he just played rugby because he loved it. Because it was a chance to have some fun with his mates. Because of that mindset, the rest followed.

“I think for me, I put the enjoyment of the game ahead of the pressure of trying to make it.

“I guess that’s what happens with a lot of guys. They take it so seriously and it drains them mentally and they just blow out because it’s just too much.

“You have to enjoy the game and enjoy what you’re doing and whenever that happens, working hard is easy.”

SAM HEWAT (SCHOOL 2006 – 2010)