Rugby World Cup – From York to Japan via Malton & Norton and Doncaster Knights for Wales’ ‘gentle giant’ Tomas Francis

Naming the solitary Yorkshireman playing in this weekend’s Rugby World Cup semi-finals is a tough task.

TOP GUN: Wales' Tomas Francis, pictured during the Autumn international against England in Cardiff. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Many people would automatically start working their way through the England line-up to face the All Blacks but it would be a futile exercise.

There is no representative from the Broad Acres in Eddie Jones’s entire squad let alone the 23 featuring in Japan today.

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Given the enormity of the county and its rugby heritage, it is clearly a sad state of affairs.

BLEEDING FOR THE CAUSE: Tomas Francis needed minor medical attention during the World Cup quarter-final win over France at Oita Stadium. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Nevertheless, take a look at the Wales side and, ironically, there is someone honed from Yorkshire ready to rumble against South Africa tomorrow.

Tomas Francis, their tight-head prop, was born in York, cut his teeth as a youngster at Malton and Norton and represented University of Leeds before, at the age of 19, getting his first professional contract with Doncaster Knights.

That said, Doncaster did not rate him highly, releasing him after just one season when they were relegated to National One in 2013.

Indeed, the response of their vastly-experienced director of rugby Clive Griffiths, when asked this week if he ever envisaged Francis becoming an international, is swift: “No, not in a million years.”

Doncaster Knight' director of rugby, Clive Griffiths.

The Welshman is happy to have been proven wrong, mind, after the ‘over-weight’ front-row – Francis admitted he once topped 24 stone during his days at University of Leeds – that headed off to London Scottish got picked up by Exeter Chiefs and flourished.

Griffiths said: “We joke about it now. Tom had great ambitions to play at the very top and I came in and he was grossly unfit.

“I thought he was one of those who talked the talk but, to be fair to him, he got a good break when he was at Scottish, he got picked up at Exeter and I’m delighted to be proven wrong.

“I saw him recently when I was down in Wales at their training camp and we joked about it how I didn’t think this would happen in a million years, to be honest.”

RELEASED: Tomas Francis, second right, in action for Doncaster Knights against his future club London Scottish back in 2013. Picture: Liz Mockler

Francis revealed around then that the pair had not parted on the best of terms but Griffiths had sent him a letter congratulating him on his success.

“These things happen in rugby don’t they?” said Griffiths, the 65-year-old who was capped himself before switching codes with St Helens in 1979 and was Wales defence coach when they won the 2005 Grand Slam.

“You fall out with people. Some of it is irreparable and some is fixable. With Tom, I didn’t think he was playing to the level he should have and he was let go – but obviously he got himself a nice little career from leaving here.

“I don’t bear any grudges unless it’s the obvious and a player stabs you in the back.

BE PREPARED: Prop Tomas Francis takes part in a training session at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo earlier this week. Picture: Odd Anderson/AFP via Getty Images.

“I’ve no complaints with Tom and I’m absolutely delighted to see him progress. I sent him a letter to congratulate him – and I also sent him a (Doncaster) programme with his picture on the front which bears absolutely no resemblance to the Tom Francis that we see now!

“We had a laugh and he said ‘I can see where you were coming from now! I gave him a wake-up call and if that wake-up call contributed in some way to him getting international honours then brilliant.

“His ambition was to be a British Lion and if someone had been injured on that last tour he would have been one as he was over there, called up and ready.

“He’s that close. Who’s to say on the next Lions tour he won’t be in it and he’ll have fulfilled his dream and his ambition of playing international rugby with Wales and the Lions.

“I wish him well with it.”

The folk at Malton and Norton, the North One East club nestled in Ryedale and close to Francis’s home village of Westow, will avidly be watching tomorrow.

WHERE IT BEGAN: Tomas Francis pictured during his days with Malton & Norton. Picture submitted.

His dad, a farmer from nearby Burythorpe, took him down there from the age of just four.

Pat Stephenson, one of the club’s coaches, remembers how that boy turned into a man, one ready to take on the Springboks again and hopefully steer Wales to a first-ever World Cup final.

“My son was in the same age group so we’ve seen Tom come through from the minis,” he said.

“I think he was about six and he went all the way through to play for our senior first team.

“You can get a talented back with speed, good hands and footwork and you can see how he’s a centre. When working with a prop it’s never as clear-cut.

“They take time. I always remember him down as a mini and it’s not really the game for big lads at that age when the quick ones are running around and charging off everywhere.

“But he did learn to pass and showed he can handle the ball. He shows he can do that now at international level.

“It’s when he got older and we got into more competitive scrummaging that we realised.

“He is a lump; he was very useful the way he anchored the scrum as he did and given he was a good tackler and had those hands we always felt he could go play at a higher standard.

“As for how far, I don’t think anyone saw him playing for Wales – we were always hoping England!”

Francis qualified for Wales given his paternal grandmother was Welsh and it was Warren Gatland who invited him down after making such an impression for Exeter in the Premiership.

He made his Wales debut in 2015 and two years later lifted the league title with Exeter.

Stephenson remembered when he left Malton and Norton.

“He managed to score two tries at Wheatley Hills and we thought ‘this’ll be a good season,’” he said.

“But he started to move on to bigger and better things. There aren’t lots of tightheads in the game so a good one is like a gold nugget. He’s proving he is one.

“At Malton we feel we have to encourage players that have that potential to go upwards.

“We just hope that at some point they might come back and play for us years down the line.

“We’re very pleased and proud of what he’s done since leaving here and it is him who’s done it.

“The one thing I hope we taught him was how to smile and enjoy the game and to not let it be something that rules your life.

“I think he has. He is quiet but he’s stayed in touch with his mates here right through to his days of fame and fortune.

“He’s always down at Christmas and in the summer. He’s a cracking lad, a gentle giant.

“When he got that red card (for kicking Harlequins’ Danny Care in 2016) everyone here nearly dropped off their seat.”

The clubhouse will be busy early today and tomorrow.

Stephenson added: “Tom’s nieces and nephews will be down as they’re in the Minis now.

“We all hope Wales do the business – and if England beat New Zealand, too, we’ll tackle the final when it comes next week with mixed feelings. I think we’d hope England win – but Tom gets man of the match. We don’t want much do we...?”