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Exeter forward Tomas Francis in the shape of his life for Wales debut

Exeter forward Tomas Francis looks on course to complete a staggering quantum leap from 24-stone university second team prop to World Cup tighthead.

York-born Francis, whose grandmother Eirlys hails from the Swansea Valley, will make his Wales debut in Saturday's World Cup warm-up Test against Dublin hosts Ireland.

It is Francis' first international appearance, but Wales' last game before head coach Warren Gatland reveals on Monday a 31-man squad for a tournament that sees his players drawn alongside England and Australia in the so-called 'pool of death'.

Only a few seasons ago, Francis would have thought himself far more likely to be watching this year's tournament in a bar, rather than possibly playing any active part at the sharp end, but he can now reflect on a remarkable transformation.

He arrived in the Wales squad via Malton and Norton Rugby Club, then the University of Leeds, Doncaster, London Scottish and latterly Exeter, where he has enjoyed a rapid development under Chiefs rugby director Rob Baxter's expert eye.

At his heaviest while in university, Francis tipped the scales at more than 24 stone, but he is now 130 kgs (20 stone, four pounds), having fought his way through a punishing summer of training and impressed everyone in the Wales camp with his dedication and talent.

"I feel in the shape of my life now - I am stronger and fitter," said Francis, who packs down with Gethin Jenkins and Ken Owens in Wales' front-row this weekend.

"I started to change my lifestyle towards the end at London Scottish, and then made the next step at Exeter and the next step again now. I enjoy pushing my body to see where I can go.

"When I was at school I wanted to play rugby, but when I reached sixth form I hadn't been picked up and I didn't fit in the English system. There was a bit of bitterness over that, so I followed my A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry to go into mechanical engineering.

"Then Andrew Boyde, my university coach, was playing at Doncaster and asked me over at Christmas - a time of food and drink - to go over to keep fit, and then Doncaster signed me on from there."

Francis, 23, went to Sedbergh School, where past pupils include Will Carling and Will Greenwood, before entering sixth form studies at Ampleforth College, which used to be attended by Lawrence Dallaglio, so rugby has never been far from centre-stage in his life.

Preparing for a World Cup, though, has taken training to a whole new level, with Wales having embarked on punishing trips this summer to Switzerland and Qatar.

"In one evening session in Qatar we did a fitness test straight into a fitness session, which was pretty severe," he added. "Trying to cool down afterwards was tough, with a mad scramble to get into the air-con.

"It was a runways fitness test, then repeat shuttles for speed - three sets of those. We were running the same distance we had been doing in Wales, but in the heat at the end of a long day.

"You couldn't cool down and your boots were squelching from the second repetition, but nobody dropped out, everyone finished and pushed to the end.

"That's what it is all about and it makes you stronger and closer as a group. Those are the sessions that make you."


From Belfast Telegraph