FRANCIS SAILI FELL in love with rugby on the famous old terraces of Eden Park, watching his childhood hero Carlos Spencer create his latest bit of magic.
The eastern terraces in the Auckland stadium are gone now, consigned forever to the memory bin after upgrades for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.
With them went one of Auckland rugby’s social hotspots, a boisterous place where young and old gathered to turn the volume up when Carlos ‘The King’ was at his most delightfully creative.
Munster centre Saili was brought up watching Spencer and the Blues, and their 2003 Super Rugby title – secured against the Crusaders at Eden Park – supplied sheer joy for the then 12-year-old.
That team – also including Joe Rokocoko, Doug Howlett, Mils Muliaina, Xavier Rush, Justin Collins, Keven Mealamu and Rico Gear – was a mysterious, fantastical beast to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.
Up close and personal, the Blues and Spencer shaped Saili’s philosophy of the game.
“I always used to go to the matches after my games in the morning and sit in the terraces, the cheap stands because I couldn’t afford the big boxes or tickets,” says Saili with his always-ready smile. “We’d be in the terraces cheering from there.
Carlos Spencer was the guy that made me want to play, the flair that he had, the x-factor. Sometimes he pulled it off, sometimes he didn’t, but at least he didn’t have a fear of trying.”
Now 24, Saili’s excitement about getting on the ball and creating something is undimmed, despite the structure of the modern professional game.
Sitting in Limerick’s Castletroy Park Hotel, close to his new home in Annacotty, he bristles with energy as he explains how he wants to make things happen for Munster, how he hopes to help the province’s younger players develop, the desire to inspire others as Spencer did him, and the importance of his family.
This evening at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris will be a genuine Saili family reunion and the youngest son in the clan is deeply enthusiastic.
Saili’s parents and his younger sister spent Christmas with him in Limerick, before jetting to France to visit older brother Peter, who has been with Top 14 club Bordeaux since last season.
“They were over here for Christmas for 10 days,” says Saili of his family’s visit to Ireland. “We didn’t do too much, they were tired for four days and kept on sleeping! I tried to tell them to stay up but they didn’t listen, and there weren’t a lot of places I could take them to see because of the weather.
“It wasn’t ideal for that, so we kind of stayed at home and my mum was doing the cooking. That’s what I missed from home, nice hot meals!”
While Saili’s mother did her fair share of cooking in the Polynesian style, the fact that he and his housemate Sean Doyle are not dab hands at putting together a traditional Irish Christmas dinner saw the family carted down to the Savoy Hotel for turkey and ham.
“The whole trip was about us all being together,” says Saili, who has another brother who is older than Peter. “It’s a small family in comparison to most Polynesian families, who have like 12!”
Being away from his family and close friends is the hardest part of living in Ireland for Saili, particularly given that he had to find a new way to motivate himself.
Back home in New Zealand, the only thing he needed to get fired up was a glimpse of his parents in the stands or on the sidelines.
“That’s one thing I miss – I was used to seeing them out in the crowds and waving out to them,” says the Kiwi.
Primarily, that’s one of the most important reasons why I play and I like seeing them in the crowd afterwards or having them into the after-match function. It gives you a reason and a purpose why you’re playing. I loved it when they came and watched me.”
The Sailis are Samoan, but moved to New Zealand in time for Peter and Francis to be born as natives of Auckland. Peter is just over three years older than Francis and laid a rugby path for his brother to follow.
Their father, Kave, was the major influence in getting his sons to turn to rugby, instilling in them goals of playing for the Blues and the All Blacks at an early stage. The odyssey began at the Eden Rugby Club in Gribblehirst Park, where Kave coached Francis and his two brothers.
By the time Francis moved into secondary school at St. Peter’s College, ten minutes up the road from his Gribblehirst Park playground, Peter was already making waves as a barrelling back row.
“He’s pretty much the one that put the family name on the map,” says Saili of his brother, who went on to play for New Zealand Schools, U19s, U20s, then into the pro game with Auckland and the Blues.
“He was like my inspiration coming through the ranks of rugby, because every time I came through, they’d be like, ‘Ah, you’re Peter Saili’s little brother’.
“I ended up almost being fed up with it, because I wanted to make my own name, but at the same time it was nice to know that people recognised that Peter paved the way for me. It’s a warm feeling for me to know that’s my brother.”
The Saili brothers had one brief outing together in the St. Peter’s First XV, the three-year gap showing how prodigious a talent Francis was. Their real impact together would come in the professional game.
Francis followed the pathway by playing for the New Zealand Schools, U20s and then into the Auckland set-up. He had a disciplinary issue during his time with the province’s academy, however, and his major ITM Cup impact came after a move to North Harbour.
Saili matured quickly with the North Shore City set-up and move on towards his Super Rugby debut for the Blues in 2012, Pat Lam’s final season in charge.
A year later, Francis went a step further than Peter and won his two All Blacks caps – an international career the 24-year-old hopes to resume when he moves back to New Zealand in the future.
Kave watched on with pride as his boys spent three seasons together with the Blues, starring in Eden Park, where so many of their weekends had been spent as youths.
“It was a dream come true running out together and playing together,” says Saili. “It was always a special moment for me and my family.
If we ended up out on the edge [the wide channels] together, for instance, we always knew exactly what we were gonna do. He knows what I’m thinking and I’m the same with him. I could read off him.”
The fact that Saili wouldn’t have his family in the stands any longer – this evening is the exception – meant he had to reassess how he motivated himself to play rugby when initially moving to Munster.
For a man with as much energy as he clearly possesses it was unlikely to be difficult, but the Auckland man does say he had to put his head down and focus on why he was in Ireland.
“I changed my mindset when I came here in August,” says Saili, who signed a two-year deal with Munster. “I knew that I was going to be alone, that I wasn’t going to have my family or my tight friends here with me. The boys in Munster made the transition easy for me and I thought to myself every night, ‘There’s a reason I’m here, I’ve got a purpose.’
“My purpose is to do the best that I can for this team and the most important thing for me is getting the respect of my teammates. The only way you can do that is to put your best foot forward on the pitch, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Another element of the ‘purpose’ Saili feels here in Ireland is one of development. He wants to help Munster’s academy players as much he can, perhaps not directly but at least by sharing his ideas and methods with their coaches.
It’s not just lip service from a foreign signing eager to impress his team’s supporters; Saili can actually back up the sentiment with detail.
“I like watching the academy boys train,” he says. “Even if we have a break in our training, I like to stand back and watch the academy boys. That’s where I came from. I actually spoke to the academy skills coach, Greig Oliver, today and we had a good yarn.
“Greig asked me afterwards how I work on my footwork and I told, ‘We should sit down, have a coffee and I’ll give you my ideas about how I could help or influence how you help the guys.’
“I’d love to be there [at academy training] as well, but obviously I have my focuses with training too.”
One of the reasons Saili is keen to share ideas and observe how the Munster academy works is because of his deep belief in the central importance of the basic rugby skills like passing, footwork and tackling.
I don’t want the boys to practice bad habits and I guess that’s what I found different in coming to this side of the world, the skill level. Because back home, oh man, we work on that every time we train.
“I guess that’s a big factor in rugby, having those skill sets and that’s why I told Greig we should sit down and share ideas. Anything I can do to help them is great.”
Saili has major respect for the passion and work rate that is typical of the players here in Ireland and the Northern Hemisphere, but he also feels that their ability to play ‘heads-up rugby’ is somewhat behind what he was accustomed to in New Zealand.
“The boys work hard, they work so hard,” says Saili, “but I always say there’s no point in working hard if you’re not going to work smart at the same time. For instance, boys can work hard into positions, but they are sometimes like robots and stick to the structures.
“You need to see in front of you and what you’re going to play against. The pictures you see is what you’ve got to adapt to. You’ve got to adapt to the defence and how you’re going to punch holes. You’re trying to problem solve the game.”
That mindset was a common thread for Saili from the Eden club to St. Peter’s and right up to the All Blacks, but rugby in Europe is certainly more prescribed.
The impression throughout the conversation is that Saili is a man who is extremely grateful for what rugby has brought him. His contract with Munster is a highly-lucrative one, and that money was clearly an important factor in his move, but he doesn’t take it for granted.
“I’ve always been grateful for what rugby has given me,” says Saili. “It filters down from my parents. We didn’t come from a wealthy background or anything like that, but experiences along the way make you the person you are.
“I’m grateful for all the things I never had when I was young and that I have now. It’s good for me, because I can be in a position where I can influence others, or help others, if it’s promotionally, financially. I’m grateful because I know what it’s like not to have what I now have. ”
Saili has looked dangerous for Munster so far this season, but the sense is that Anthony Foley’s impressive-on-paper backline has yet to fully click. Numerous are the moments when they have come close to unleashing their full potential, only for an offload to go to deck or a trail runner to miss the possibility of the pass out of contact.
The feeling is that when Munster’s outside backs truly begin to understand Saili’s way of thinking, tries will come far more easily.
“As backs, it’s a work in progress,” says Saili. “We’re getting used to each other in terms of the connections, in terms of how we know the other players. What’s my 10 like, how does he like to play? I’ve got to adapt off him and vice versa, he needs to know what game I like.
“With Earlsy [Keith Earls] in the backs, man he’s an intelligent player and we have our talks as well, how we like to play the game. For instance, if I get the ball he might tell me to have a crack and he’ll be off my shoulder. Those little connections help out the big picture and help out the team, so we’re trying to grow that and it’s a work in progress.”
Saili partners the ever-improving Rory Scannell in midfield again in Paris this evening, and points to the Corkman’s kicking and distribution as allowing Munster to play in a different way.
“He’s like the second-five-eighth, that second pair of eyes for the 10.”
Saili says he is relishing the pressure of this game against Stade Français, stating that pressure exposes “the real character of a person.” He says some hide, but that he will face the challenge, step forward and “confront it.” Kave taught him no other way.
The days of delighting in The King’s exploits from the terraces of Eden Park are in the past, but with his family watching at Stade Jean-Bouin this evening, Saili hopes to show that he’s still the same enthusiastic, creative rugby player of his youth.
I guess rugby nowadays is more of a balance, risk and reward,” says the midfielder. “Obviously, you want to bring your flair to the game, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team. You’ve got to stick to the systems, but express yourself within those systems.
“For myself, I know that our game plan here is different to what it is back home, because we always played an expansive game. If I get the ball, I try and do what I can do with it and try to create something.
“I always remember that that’s why I want to be here. I want to be able to make a difference.”