By Steffan Thomas
The Ospreys are ready to sign Wales prop Tomas Francis from Exeter, who look unlikely to be able to offer him a club and country base next season.
Francis has often pledged his loyalty to the Chiefs, who are the current European champions and have become the strongest side in England following Saracens’ demise.
Only last season, he said: “It would be a terribly difficult decision to leave Exeter, one I do not want to have to make.
“I want to keep playing for Wales. I also want to keep playing for Exeter.’’
The 28-year-old has won 51 caps for Wales since making his debut in 2015 but with only seven Test matches to go until his Chiefs contract expires, he will have to join a Welsh side under the WRU’s controversial 60-cap selection policy.
Exeter announced last summer they had extended his current deal past the end of the 2020/21 season in an attempt to exercise a loophole in the WRU’s selection policy.
But the WRU have dug their heels in – ruling that Francis’s original contract has already been extended once before – and insisting the forward must ply his trade in Wales if he is to continue his Test career despite having played all his rugby in England so far.
Now, the former Doncaster Knight and London Scottish player has accepted he must move to Wales and will be included in the elite 38 where the WRU will pay 80 per cent of his wages with his club of choice making up the remaining 20 per cent.
Francis will have to meet all four Welsh sides but, despite a deal having not yet been completed, it is understood the Ospreys are the clear front runners for his signature.
The tight-head won his most recent cap in the victory over Italy at the end of the Autumn Nations Cup and said the series had been a big step up, even from having played for Exeter in this season’s Gallagher Premiership.
“It has been a massive step up as a squad and we’ll take the positives into the Six Nations,” he said.
“The attacking shape at the end showed how we want to play. Hopefully, we can build on that. It’s not long until we are back together so it’s exciting really.
“It’s always been tough after Covid. As a squad we weren’t quite where we needed to be and a little bit off the pace.
“But the foundations put in during this camp have been great and made us ready for 2021.
“A lot of new caps have been blooded and I think almost all of them have had two games. We have built depth.”
The Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets don’t have a definitive budget for next season at this stage.
All four sides were originally set to receive in the region of £26m between them but due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic this has dropped to a mere £3m.
On top of that they have been saddled with a £20m loan from NatWest which they’ll have to repay.
Discussions are ongoing with the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) and WRU to have a more favourable amount of funding for next season with the Ospreys hoping to compete a deal for Francis early in the new year.