Ex-Bulls No 10 Burton Francis’ journey from rugby to wine brand owner an important lesson for sportsmen

An injury forced Burton Francis to go into the wine business after his rugby career was cut short. Picture: Supplied

An injury forced Burton Francis to go into the wine business after his rugby career was cut short. Picture: Supplied

Published May 19, 2024


At just 31 years of age, in the prime of his rugby career in France, former Bulls flyhalf Burton Francis felt a little discomfort in his lower back at training one Monday morning.

Minutes later discomfort quickly morphed into debilitating pain when he tried to pick up a ball off the ground and he needed to be rushed to hospital. An MRI revealed a slipped disk in his lower back after years of big hits and “wear and tear” taking its toll.

Francis visited specialists in France, one telling him to go under the knife and another advising him to try rehab. He tried rehab to get back on the field quickly, but after three months and no improvement he stood in front of mirror, facing the reality that he didn’t think he would for another seven years.

“Life came at us fast,” the Paarl-born Francis told IOL Sport.

Francis was forced to retire from the game he had played his whole life, starting his journey at the Klein Nederburg Senior Secondary School before making his senior debut for the Blue Bulls in the 2008 Vodacom Cup and subsequently played for the Bulls in Super Rugby.

Over the following years, he played for various South African teams including the Golden Lions, Stormers, Western Province, SWD Eagles, Griquas, and the Cheetahs.

Burton Francis during his time with Agen in France. Picture: Nicolas Tucat / AFP

In 2013, Francis moved to France to join Agen. His tenure at Agen was particularly successful, with over 110 appearances and more than 1,000 points scored.

In December 2018, while playing for Grenoble, he then had to face the reality that he won’t be able to play again.

“It was a shock to the system... I was like ‘what now?’,” Francis said.

“Suddenly reality hit that I won’t be able to support my family anymore. Rugby was all I knew. I wasn’t the smartest guy and rugby was my first chance to make something of myself.

“It’s difficult to think outside rugby, because your just in a bubble. It’s nice to be there. People put you on a pedestal. The pressure is huge, but when you perform, it’s really rewarding.

“It’s more difficult for a guy who comes from nothing to think about life after rugby.”

The injury may have ended up accelerating Francis new career path, which incidentally started with the diet he decided to follow as a rugby player and brought to life by the culture and traditions enjoyed in the southeast of France.

“My love for wine probably started during my career as a pro athlete. You have to make the decision... your drink of choice, beer, spirits or wine. You have it in the week, after the game. It’s rugby culture,” Francis said.

“It has to fit into your diet, what suits you. And wine was my choice and I started to take a lot of interest in it.

“In France, you had rugby, but you also had a life to enjoy and explore. And the lifestyle and wine culture was something that fascinated me. The wine and food culture is something I really enjoyed.

Francis’ love for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which is the lifeblood of the Burgundy region of France, pushed him to get out of his comfort zone and do an MBA in wine and spirits just nine months after his career-ending diagnosis.

It was a nine-month intense course that covered everything, and we could travel to different parts of Europe to explore other wine and spirit makers.

Normally, players who retire early from the game try to stay in the game, and go into coaching. But Francis was never interested in that part of the game.

“I didn’t want to travel the same path again, working myself back to the top. I didn’t want to go into coaching,” he said.

“That’s why, with the love of wine and wine culture, I dived in head first to do my MBA in wine and spirits.

“It was basically, boots off and books open. It needed a lot of discipline and it humbled me to be honest. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Having to sit all day with a bad back was also a challenge and halfway through I was in hospital again.

“But I knew I had to see it through. I wanted something to take home, I told myself ‘we can’t stop now’.”

Burton Francis testing his wines.

After finishing the course in 2020, Francis spent another year in France, visiting different estates in different regions to learn more and compare the different aspects of winemaking.

In 2021, he had and wife, Athena, returned to South Africa and Paarl during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of coming home and going to work for an established wine farm, Francis sought to create wines inspired by his time in the Burgundy region.

While Paarl is also well-known for its wines, he chose the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge ridge for his vineyards due to its similarities with Burgundy in terms of climate and soil composition.

Collaborating with renowned winemaker Kevin Grant as lead consultant and Christo Kotze from La Vierge Winery, the former Stormers flyhalf launched Francis Wines, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, in 2022.

Francis Wines’ Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Francis describes the wine as niche, for fine dining establishments and boutique outlets. He has already exported a small batch to Mauritius and is hoping that the wine will start to resonate with the people of South Africa.

“The unfortunate reality is it takes about 12 months from harvesting to bottling. Then it needs to be labelled, packaged, priced and distributed and marketed,” Francis said.

“So it’s more than just making a wine and selling it. We’re 10 months into the trade, everybody loves it. But now it’s about how do we sell it. For it to reach people.

“We bottled 1,380 bottles of Pinot Noir and 1,100 Chardonnay. We just want to grow at about 15 percent per year to keep that quality.

“It’s going to take a few years to get a foot print in South Africa, because we have such a lot of good wines in the country. But we are exited about the future.”

Francis hopes his journey can inspire other rugby players and help them think about life after the game.

“The purpose of Francis wines is to inspire,” Francis said.

“Rugby players, and I was in the same boat, play the game and don’t think about tomorrow. You play, you’re naive, you think you’ll finish when you decided to finish. You just live from contract to contract.

“But you never know when life will come at you. Life can smack you in the face and will leave you dizzy. Not everyone can be a Springbok, so it’s vital to always plan ahead.”

Sports agent Shafiek Mouton from F7 Sports Management says he has seen many sportsmen and women who struggle after their career finishes and agrees that players need a “clear career plan”.

“Rugby players are often naive to think they are going to play forever. However, it's important for players to have a clear career plan, even form an early stage, which also includes planning for life after rugby,” Mouton said.

“Agents should play an integral part in advising their clients to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible and help the athlete put clear plans in place.

“Not all players will become coaches or broadcasters and I am yet to see a player accumulate enough wealth to sustain him and his family once that proverbial final whistle blows.

“It's of vital importance for players to study towards a qualification when they can, obtain skills during their careers and use their networks to their benefit whilst they are playing professionally.”

There is help out there for rugby players, though, with My Players, the South African players’ body giving players the tools and advice to sustain themselves post-rugby.

My Players is 100% owned by the country’s rugby players, with Springbok star Lukhanyo Am serving as its president.

“It’s compulsory for players to save in the players’ pension fund. They have access to it once they leave, but we always encourage them possibly transfer it to a different fund,” said former Junior Springboks and Stormers flyhalf Isma-eel Dolly, who is the national player relationship manager for My Players.

“We have a player development department, where players can go into job shadow opportunities. Do Financing 101 and social media.

“While you are playing you don’t think about life after rugby. The lights are too bright. But the reality is you are one ruck or tackle away from a career-ending injury.

“By then it is too late ... So that is why we try and prep the guys early. But there must be an appetite from the players as well, it can’t just come from one side.

“We understand there are different demands, but they have to have a view of life after rugby.”