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Welsh rugby superstar gives insight into the huge pressure he felt under after the words of an old lady in a petrol station

The great Olympian Michael Johnson used to say pressure’s nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity.

He obviously didn’t had to play fly-half for Wales after just two-and-half games of rugby union.

Cut to Iestyn Harris in 2001 when the superstar from rugby league had switched codes in a reported £1.5 million deal and was immediately seen as the man who was going to restore the good old days to Welsh rugby.

It went over the heads of some that he’d never actually played a game of 15-a-side before.

He cost a lot of money, so it followed that he had to be special. Like, now. Immediately. Without delay.

Didn’t it?

So it was that Harris found himself propelled into the Wales team at No. 10 just three games into his union career.

Fully 20 years on he remembers how, in the run-up to his Test debut, an encounter at a filling station unnerved him.

“I was at a petrol station filling my car up and there was an old lady next to me doing the same,” he said in an interview with Sky Sports.

“I just smiled to say ‘hello’, she did a double-take, turned around and said ‘You’d better be worth the money’.

“About three days later I was playing my first game for Wales and I was in the line-up and I’ve got my arm around Craig Quinnell who is 6ft 8in, and all I could think of was this woman at the petrol station.

“That in itself, that smallest thing — I felt a huge amount of pressure at the time and it took me about six months to get used to it.”



Iestyn Harris is hugged by Craig Quinnell during the anthem before Wales v Argentina at the Millennium Stadium

That first appearance for Wales didn’t go well.

He had two kicks charged down and gave away the two tries that Argentina scored. At one point he punted the ball aimlessly into midfield for the Pumas to run the ball back quickly for a score. As Test debuts go, it was off the nightmare variety.

But things in south Wales had started promisingly.

There were reports of people interrupting what they were doing to watch on TV his first full appearance in union. It came for Cardiff against Glasgow in the Heineken Cup and it saw Harris score a hat-trick of tries.

There were 30-metre passes off either hand and breaks from first phase and every other phase, for that matter. The Guardian called his full union bow “cotton-wool, fluffy-cloud perfect”.

For some, he even evoked memories of Barry John in his pomp. John himself said: “His performance against Glasgow was out of this world: he had so much time and was a delight to watch.”

But in the heat of international rugby, where there’s little time to even think, Harris found the going tougher. Argentina harangued him at every turn.

It did get better.

But it took a lot of hard work for Harris to learn the rudiments of the union game. In his book, There and Back, he recalls that during those 2001 autumn Tests, the freshly arrived Steve Hansen came on to him and said ‘Do you know how to place the ball after a tackle?’ I had to admit I didn’t. I was playing international rugby and didn’t know one of the basics.’

He went on: “Steve spent half-an-hour with me and a tackling shield, taking me through some drills. He was the first person to get hold of me and explain the technique and that was after I had made my Test debut.”

Hansen, he says, “was the guy who spent most time with me”, telling Harris to model his game on Andrew Mehrtens, the New Zealand fly-half and showing him videos.

And so it went on. Harris and Hansen could be in a room for two hours and maybe just going through 10 minutes of tape because he’d keep stopping it. It was one-on-one coaching of the highest quality. Harris benefited no end.

A switch to inside centre helped, too, allowing Harris more time and space.

At the World Cup in 2003 he flickered quite brilliantly at times, notably against Canada. He was up against a man who combined rugby with part-time work as a disc jockey back home.

By the time the chap in question left the field his head must have been spinning as much as one of his records, so often did the former Great Britain rugby league captain pass him. Two days after, sitting in hot Canberra sun, he told the media: “This is my time.”

But he was gone from union within a year, returning home to league.


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He could have played for England on residential grounds. Clive Woodward rang him four times but Harris didn’t answer the calls, because “I was never going to play for them. The only country I was going to play for was Wales, so there was no point starting a discussion as it would only have gone one way.”

When he returned to league in 2004, there was a sense that he’d left behind unfinished business. Certainly his display against Glasgow — it’s hard to imagine a better full debut — hinted at promise that wasn’t totally translated into consistent achievement thereafter.

But maybe that’s harsh given his circumstances.

Harris was a player you were glad you were able to see play.

Had the old lady in the petrol station shelled out at the turnstiles to watch him when he was on song, she would not have wanted her money back.

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