FAMILY FORTUNES: Owen and Ben Franks have played together in 33 test matches for the All Blacks, and both have World Cup winners' medals
LONDON, 18 Sept - They have been best pals, training partners and brothers-in-arms in the All Blacks pack for so long that a real sadness softens the hard men Ben and Owen Franks when they talk about the approaching end of an era.
A couple of no-fuss props, the brothers clearly do not like to make a song and dance of their considerable achievements, which include both of them clasping winners’ medals at the last World Cup.
The pair were once hailed by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder as the most professional players he had ever come across. Their zealous dedication to fitness is famed and will become even more fabled after their admission on Thursday that they spent their first day as world champions in Auckland 2011 not with a hangover but with a gym weights session.
They have trained together, packed down in the front row together, won together, roomed together and, on the odd spectacular occasion at training with the Crusaders before Ben moved on to the Hurricanes, even fought each other.
JOINING LONDON IRISH
Yet after playing in 33 internationals in harness, only two of which they lost, one of rugby’s most enduring sibling partnerships is on its last lap of the field, with 31-year-old Ben ready to take on the new challenge of English Premiership rugby with London Irish after the tournament is over.
In the history of New Zealand rugby only two sets of brothers, Zinzan and Robin Brooke (39 tests) and twins Gary and Alan Whetton (34) have ever combined more often in tests, so it will be a wrench for Ben to give up the All Blacks buzz and not be playing alongside his 27-year-old sibling.
“It’s gone by so quick. The rugby side of it is something we’ve both definitely enjoyed,” Ben said, reflecting on their front-row battles together. “I’ve got no doubt we’ll definitely be training partners for the rest of our lives but on the rugby side, it’s sad in a way that it’s going to end.”
Even Owen, who in public at least seems much less chatty and outgoing than his brother, was moved to admit he was definitely going to miss having Ben around. “We’re training partners and hang out a lot. I guess I might be sitting around the dinner table a few times by myself.”
Ben still hopes, with a few years left in the game and his new London adventure ahead of him, that somewhere down the road the brothers may team up again in club rugby. They both say you can count on their training partnership being reunited at one of the gyms they run in Christchurch.
AT HOME IN THE GYM
That work ethic in the weights and conditioning rooms is what has made them, they say. Others had more talent, Ben reckoned, but the discipline instilled into them by their fisherman dad Ken has made all the difference.
“Dad had us training at a pretty young age,” Ben reflected. “He always taught us that what you put in you get out and you always have to put in a bit more and think outside the square to get ahead.”
They did get ahead. Owen recalled: “Ben would try to bait me into fighting him because I was so much weaker and smaller but as I got older I could start to compete a little bit more.”
Indeed, he started competing so well that, ultimately, tight-head Owen has overhauled his big brother, so far having won 72 caps to Ben’s 43. Of those 33 internationals in harness, they have started only two together. Owen has been the regular starter with Ben, who can operate either side of the hooker, coming on as a replacement. Owen will start against Argentina on Sunday but Ben is not in the 23.
It would be a perfect ending to their partnership if they could become the first brothers to lift the Webb Ellis Cup twice and should it happen, you can expect a repeat of Auckland 2011 when their best celebrations were not lifting pints but weights.
“Ben was going down the gym and though I wasn’t planning on it, we’re pretty early risers and as I wasn’t up to much, I thought I might as well go down and lift some weights as well,” Owen shrugged. “I guess for some people, gym is a chore but we’ve been doing it for so long it’s a bit of an outlet for us. We feel at home in the gym.”
NEW ZEALAND’S BROTHERS IN ARMS
43 sets of brothers have played for the All Blacks at different times but only nine have lined up alongside each other
BROOKE - Zinzan and Robin (39 tests, 1992-97)
WHETTON - Alan and Gary (34, 1984-91)
FRANKS - Owen and Ben - (33, 2010-15)
CLARKE - Don and Ian (18, 1956-63)
MEADS - Colin and Stan (14, 1961-66)
BACHOP - Graeme and Stephen (4, 1994)
BROWNLIE - Cyril and Maurice (3, 1924-25)
NICHOLLS - Harry ‘Ginger' and Mark (1, 1921)
PURDUE - Charles and Edward 'Pat' (1, 1905)