Ben Franks’ appointment as Scarlets scrum coach was met with a shrug of indignation in some quarters of West Wales, and with a hop, skip and a jump in other places earlier this week. Even though locally reared Richard Kelly was still promoted to forwards coach from an academy role at the region, there was disquiet that Ioan Cunningham – a highly regarded young coach – had exited stage-door right without explanation after nine years.
Many high profile figures, including ex-Ospreys and Bristol coach Sean Holley, bemoaned the lack of a pathway for young Welsh coaches, which is understandable given there are no indigenous directors of rugby or head coaches operating at any of the four Welsh regions. Toby Booth (Ospreys) and Dean Ryan (Dragons) are English, new Scarlets boss Glenn Delaney is from New Zealand and John Mulvihill (Cardiff Blues) is Australian.
There was no doubt that Cunningham, an abrasive back row in his Llanelli playing days, was a pivotal part in the renaissance of the region that won the Guinness PRO12 title in 2017 under Wayne Pivac and reached the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final in 2018, a feat not managed by a Welsh region since Cardiff in 2009.
Yet with Brad Mooar, the wildly popular head coach heading back to New Zealand to take his place on the Ian Foster-led All Blacks ticket, it has been left to his fellow Kiwi Delaney to rebuild a coaching team fit to challenge for the PRO14 whenever it resumes.
Delaney has history with Franks having worked with him at London Irish in 2016 and the Christchurch native’s experience in a stellar 14-year career has seen him mix almost exclusively in the upper echelons of the game. The tighthead’s achievements include a World Cup in 2015 and two Super Rugby championships with the Crusaders in 2006 and 2008.
What exactly is a squad which boasts five Welsh internationals in their front row alone – Samson Lee, Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Wyn Jones and Ryan Elias – getting? One man who has spent the last few seasons seeing Franks work at close-quarters is Tom Wood, the 51-cap England international.
“I definitely thought Ben was a coach-in-waiting when I was playing with him,” said Wood to RugbyPass. “People talk about discipline and setting standards but he took it to a whole new level. He’s very serious so his biggest challenge will be how he relates to the boys and gets his messages across, but in terms of his knowledge of the scrum and professionalism, I don’t think there is anyone better.”
The brother of two-time World Cup winner Owen, Franks has a gym in Christchurch eponymously called Franks Brothers Gym where his prodigious strength has seen him squatting 300kgs. It has led to S&C staff at Northampton giving him a free rein.
“They don’t write programmes for him. They don’t give him any nutrition advice. Most players are being told exactly what to eat, down to the single calorie. Ben does all that himself. He owns a gym back in New Zealand and has a natural enthusiasm for training.”
In a relatively short space of time there, Franks’ attention-to-detail became legendary at Franklin’s Gardens. “I used to take the mickey out of him. I’d say, ‘What’s for lunch, mate?’ because he doesn’t eat with the rest of the boys. He just eats mince and rice in a cubby hole in his locker room. He has his own Tupperware box weighed down to the exact calorie that he needs to fuel himself. He’ll prep and plan months in advance.”
When it comes mapping out the rigid day’s training, Wood said that Franks ploughed his own furrow while making sure he chatted about the nuances of scrummaging with Saints forward coaches Phil Dowson and Matt Ferguson. “Even if we’re due to in at 11am, he’ll be in at 7am regardless, doing his weights. He’s an early riser, up around 5/6am so when everyone else is training in the afternoon, he’ll be having a coffee or doing some more scrum prep!”
Despite this rigorous approach to rugby, the ex-England back row insisted Franks can switch off. “He likes his welding and hunting and sometimes if I need some cheap labour, something heavy lugged about, I’ll ask him. He is funny and like many Kiwis, he has this dry sense of humour. His brother Owen is a more light-hearted laid-back version of him.”
As for the challenges that will await in West Wales, Wood reckoned the transition from poacher to gamekeeper will be the most difficult. “I don’t think he will be nervous but it is a challenge moving from being player to a coach.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 25, 2020
“Every player has the answers when they are playing and will critique everything a coach says but when you are given the reins as a coach you realise how hard it is. You are trying to keep everybody happy and do the best for the team.”
As for his suitability in his transition to coaching, Wood said the 47-cap All Black is ready for the next step. “Ben is somebody who thinks deeply about leadership and high-performance having played under the likes of Chris Boyd, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen.
“Like a lot of scrummagers he’s not a gregarious type, but if he is largely dealing with forwards I don’t think anyone will question his work ethic or his knowledge of the scrum. He’s gone through his career questioning every coach he has played with so now is his time to see if he can do better.”
As Wood waits to see if the suspended 2019/20 Premiership campaign reignites, Franks will see the move to West Wales as a learning experience. A chance to test to himself. “He has a strong philosophy on how to get the best from people and the standards he expects. He is considered in his approach. He doesn’t talk a load of s***, basically. He’ll sit quietly and take it all in but when he speaks, people listen. Hopefully that will translate into coaching.”
By the sounds of it, the Scarlets have snagged themselves a meticulous planner and obsessive trainer. Time will tell if he can help stir the next era.
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