The date is February 3rd 2018. The opening round of the Six Nations is taking place with Scotland taking on Wales in Cardiff. What’s notable is a dubious sight in the Scottish line-up: try fiend Huw Jones in at inside centre to accommodate the 13 jersey to a tall, straw-haired and rather lanky looking bloke called Chris Harris.
Harris, a 27-year old Cumbrian with Scottish heritage, was plucked from obscurity by Head Coach Gregor Townsend at Newcastle Falcons and made his debut at Murrayfield back in the autumn – a fleeting cameo off the bench against Samoa with no time to make a true impression. But here, the stage was set. Townsend obviously rated him enough to hand him a daunting first start in the Principality Stadium – a baptism of fire, many would claim.
Needless to say, Scotland were comprehensively beaten without a shadow of defiance by a clinical Welsh team. Not only that, but key players like Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Hamish Watson were made to look ineffective at best, anonymous at worst.
However, Harris’ reception was most brutal – and no wonder. The question marks around his identity were now minimal compared to the question marks around his actual ability. Thus, the ruthless response by Townsend was to drop him from the following squads altogether, making room for the likes of Jones, Nick Grigg and Pete Horne. His decision seemed to pay dividends when Scotland proceeded to register a fine championship from that awful start, with a now iconic victory against England at Murrayfield as the highlight.
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It was then a lengthy struggle for Harris to establish himself, earning a handful of caps in the 2018/19 season. Newcomer and now fan-favourite Sam Johnson’s introduction meant that Harris was relegated to fleeting cameos with fans and journalists still wondering what kind of player he actually was.
He made the extended Scotland squad for that year’s Rugby World Cup and looked set to be cut due to perceived better options. You can imagine the shock and bewilderment when not only was Harris selected but Huw Jones, the hero of last year’s Calcutta Cup match, were to be left at home.
But Scotland’s losses to Ireland seemed to be Harris’s gain as in the following year, he continued to be picked as Scotland’s first choice outside centre, keeping other, more flashy players at bay. Townsend and new defence coach Steve Tandy obviously held Harris in high regard but for so many Scotland supporters, his inclusion seemed completely unjustified…
And then 2021 happened…
I’m not sure whether it was the move from Newcastle Falcons to Gloucester, Steve Tandy’s influence on the Scotland set up, or even if Harris himself was just fed up with all the nay-sayers. Whatever it was, Harris took it upon himself to stamp down hard on this year’s Six Nations, producing brilliant performances week-in, week-out for club and country that silenced the harshest of critics. His work rate, intelligence, defensive capabilities and ability to read the game have made him an essential component in the Scottish starting fifteen.
We saw him render the English attack useless at Twickenham, being the type of player who makes others around him better by proxy, as well as showing off his attacking skills in midfield against Wales and Ireland.
The far and away standout showing, however, was against in Paris, where Harris produced an absolute game-saving defensive display. From his bone-shuddering hit on Virimi Vakatawa to the genius defensive read on the entire French backline in the second half, Harris single-handedly made so many French attackers obsolete.
Townsend and Tandy’s belief in Harris has been justly rewarded. It also seems that their faith has passed over well with Lions coach Warren Gatland, who has granted Harris a chance to prove himself as one of the world’s best players against the mighty South Africa. His inclusion in the squad was seen as a surprise to many, some labelling him as a “bolter” and an “outside chance”, but I personally would have put all my money on Harris making it, knowing now that all my doubts have been quashed as well as many others.
Chris Harris’ evolution is not only fascinating but inspirational. He is what you may call a “late bloomer”, bypassing the usual route that professional rugby players do of working through the international age grades to a fully fledged club contract. Harris’ work ethic saw him ascend the slow way, enjoying loan spells at Championship clubs before receiving his first professional contract in 2014 and international honours three years later at the age of 26.
With so much competitive rugby being missed out on in the past year due to the nationwide lockdown, it’s easy for many a player to mourn and grieve over all the time they had to improve and enjoy their game time. Chris Harris has shown that anyone can flourish overtime and no matter what path you took, how much time you’ve lost or even how many doubted you in the first place, everyone has the ability to transform into something great.