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All Black Francis Saili dishes on love

From scrubbing pots to exciting new challenges, Francis Saili and Carley Eklund’s love has stood the test.
Francis Saili

It was a relationship that was meant to be, say All Black Francis Saili and partner Carley Eklund (both 23). They were born in the same hospital, share a love of sport and food, and even have an identical freckle on their left arms.

But a lot has changed since their relationship began four years ago.

“I didn’t fall in love with Francis the All Black. I fell in love with Francis the dish-washer,” smiles Carley, who is currently training to become a police officer.

“Francis was working at a university hostel in Auckland, and I was studying sport and recreation, and working at a fish and chip shop.”

Jokes Francis, “Any dates we had pretty much took place over the leftover food from work!”

The Auckland couple have known each other since they were 13, but it definitely wasn’t love at first sight, Francis admits.

“We didn’t even like each other,” says the Blues centre and winger, who debuted for the All Blacks last September. “And our friends didn’t get on at all!”

After four years together, Francis and Carley are confident they can tackle life’s ups and down.

But that changed when they bumped into each other at a party a year after leaving school.

“He looked good, like he’d grown up,” says Carley, throwing Francis a cheeky grin. “He looked hot! It just clicked.”

Sitting close together on the couch in their South Auckland home – “our little starter house” Francis calls it proudly – the pair reflect on how far they’ve come in a very short space of time.

On one wall hangs Francis’ first All Blacks jersey, while Carley’s Bachelor of Sport and Recreation degree takes pride of place over the mantelpiece.

Both have been through some tough times. Francis has been plagued by a foot injury, forcing him out of this year’s All Blacks squad, while Carley had to postpone her police studies in 2012 while her mother battled breast cancer.

“But we’ve helped each other through it all,” says Carley, who was working as a jailer in Manukau before being accepted into police college last month. “And to see each other grow up has been amazing.”

As a trainee police officer and amateur boxer – she won her bout last year in the New Zealand Police’s “Station of Origin” competition, a fundraiser for breast cancer – Carley’s certainly no hanger-on.

“I really can’t stand being called a Wag,” she laments. “Just because my partner plays rugby, it doesn’t mean I’m not my own person.”

And, as Francis attests, she can more than hold her own when it comes to sport.

“She helps me train, and she uses me when she’s practising how to restrain a prisoner. I also helped her out when she was boxing last year. I was pretty much her punching bag.”

“I try to help him with his tackling and stuff,” adds Carley. “I almost broke my thumb the other day when I caught a ball, his passes are so hard!”

When Francis made his debut for the All Blacks last year, Carley couldn’t have been prouder, even if it did mean dealing with a very nervous boyfriend the week before.

“You were pretty difficult leading up to it,” Carley tells Francis, who retorts, “No, I wasn’t. I was freaking out a bit, though. I didn’t want to stuff up. This was something I’d wanted since I was a kid.”

“When he ran out, I cried,” reveals Carley. “I knew how hard he’d worked and that it didn’t come easy. There’s a lot of sacrifice.”

It’s a combination of love, support, motivation and honesty that bonds the pair, with both not afraid to tell the other exactly what’s on their minds.

Francis debuted for the All Blacks last year, something he’d dreamed of since he was a child.

“I think the best thing about us is that comfortable feeling,” explains Francis. “I can just be myself around Carley. She makes me a better person.”

“He’s my VIP,” Carley adds. “We’re really similar – we’re the loud ones of the family! And we put each other in our place. Although we come from different backgrounds, we’ve learnt a lot from each other.”

“Spot on, honey,” Francis says with a grin.

As Francis works on his fitness, and with Carley spending three months at Porirua police college, more hard work and time apart lies ahead, but they’re not fazed.

“We’re just really grateful for everything we have,” Francis says. “When we first started seeing each other, we had $100 between us to live off for a week. Now our circumstances have changed and any challenges that come along with that, we can handle.”

“Fran is exactly the same man he was before he became an All Black,” Carley adds.

“He’ll always be Francis the dish-washer to me!”

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