IT was blowing a gale in Edinburgh yesterday. Not to the same level as Yokohama in 2019, but wheelie-bins were hurtling down the street of the Scottish capital and branches were flying off trees.
And the similarities with the final week of the Scottish rugby team’s doomed World Cup campaign don’t stop there, because they were trying to block the outside noise and remain focussed on a hugely important match at the weekend which might not happen – except in this case it isn’t the weather which is causing the uncertainty but a Covid outbreak in the opposition’s ranks.
In such situations, compartmentalisation can be useful, which is perhaps why Chris Harris was slightly surprised when asked if that ordeal in Japan had helped him cope with this week’s uncertainty. “Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about that,” he said. “Maybe I can use that experience, yeah.
“It’s a weird one,” he added. “There’s not been any doubt in my mind this game is going ahead. That might just be me, I don’t know, but that’s just been my focus.
“I’m not thinking about anything else other than going over to France and playing rugby. I’m not worried about it not going ahead because if you do that, then you won’t prepare properly.”
Whilst insisting that safety is absolutely the number one priority, it is not surprising that Harris is so keen for the game to go ahead this weekend given how many key French players are now missing, and how disjointed their opponents’ preparation has been.
Scotland were disappointed to blow a commanding lead against Wales at Murrayfield last time out but will draw confidence from having beaten England at Twickenham for the first time since 1983 in round one of this year’s Six Nations, on the back of beating Wales on their own patch for the first time since 2002 last October. Now they are looking to bring another long losing streak of 22 years to an end.
“I’ve never actually played in Paris, so I don’t know what it’s like, but we’re playing in empty stadiums at the moment so it’s probably going to be similar to playing at all the other empty stadiums,” reasoned Harris. “We are full of confidence and we all believe that we can win the Championship.
“We’re ready for it, we’re feeling good and we’re playing well. I think that’s quite exciting. It’s a big game for us because if we go over there and we win, it puts us in a real good spot to win the comp. Everyone believes it. We’ve just got to go out there and do the job. That’s why we’re keen for this game to go ahead. That’s literally all our focus.”
“Why not?” the 30-year-old replied, when asked if a first championship success since 1999 is a realistic target. “After we beat England away, it was a case of: ‘We can do this!’ We’ve then gone close against Wales. We’re obviously not focusing too far ahead, but if we can beat France then we’ve got two home games to come, so it’s a good opportunity for us.
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If Sunday’s game is pushed back a week – as has been mooted – then it will fall outside World Rugby’s designated international windows, meaning any Scotland squad member who plays their club rugby in England could be barred by their club from taking part. Harris, who plays for Gloucester, is one of the 12 players who could find themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war for their services.
If he was to miss out on his 26th cap as a result of this, it would be a bitter pill to swallow, but he would be helpless to do anything about it.
“That’s out of my control,” he shrugged. “You do as you’re told, effectively. I think the laws are in place to avoid those kinds of awkward conversations, but it’s up to Gregor Townsend and George Skivington [head coach at Gloucester] to talk to each other and discuss my whereabouts.
“I would be pretty upset [if not able to play against France],” he added. “I want to play for Scotland, I want to play for my country, so I’d be pretty devastated on a personal level. But, if it’s not safe to play, it’s not safe, and if I have to go back to Gloucester and I’m not allowed to come back up . . . whether they can make tweaks to those laws is out of my hands.
“It’s out of all the players’ hands: we’ve just got to crack on and focus on the week, not let that be a distraction.”
It would be bad news for Harris and bad news for Scotland, because after an inauspicious start to his international career, he has developed into a key figure in the squad, as both a defensive lynchpin and an increasingly potent threat with ball in hand.
“Like any player you focus on your work-ons,” he said. “It’s not a one-off thing. I’m trying my best to be that attacking threat as well. I know I do have that. It’s a confidence thing. Backing myself and having a crack at the right times. I’m enjoying my rugby at the minute and feeling good. I’m playing well with Gloucester and trying to replicate that up here.”
His first international start was in the 34-7 hammering by Wales at the start of the 2018 Six Nations, and he didn’t feature again during that campaign, but has now played in all of Scotland’s last six matches stretching back to the final World Cup warm-up match against Georgia in September 2016.
“It’s been a really good run for me personally,” he agreed. “I was maybe a little bit of a slow-burner to start with, I don’t know. I was just taking that little bit of extra time to settle and grow in confidence. That next step up from playing club rugby to internationals in front of 60,000, or 80,000 that day in Wales, is a big step – but I’m enjoying it now and I want to keep improving.”