THE problem with Chris Harris, as far as a lot of Scottish fans are concerned, seems to relate to who he isn’t, rather than who he is.
He is not Huw Jones, who became the darling of Murrayfield’s masses with 10 tries from the first 14 games of his international career, during which time he accumulated enough credit in the bank to withstand the fairly barren period that has followed. The memory of that stunning brace he scored against England in 2018 – the national team’s greatest day under Gregor Townsend – lives on (never mind the fact that he has not looked like crossing the whitewash in his 11 matches since then).
And he is not Rory Hutchinson – the in-form Northampton Saints utility-back – who has impressed off the bench in three World Cup warm-up games and against Ireland at the start of this Six Nations, but is yet to start a full-blooded Test match. He’s a man with a big future, but in the age of ‘starters’ and ‘finishers’ we shouldn’t get overly concerned about having his game-breaking creativity ready to make an impact off the bench on this occasion.
Maybe Harris doesn’t get the heart beating like Jones and Hutchinson can do when they are on a roll – but that doesn’t render him a lame duck. When things were unravelling in Japan, there was a number of individuals who went missing, and some who stepped up to be counted – Harris was in the latter of those two categories.
Like all warriors, Harris could well find himself discarded in times of peace, but that’s not where Scotland are at the moment. He is the pragmatic choice … but maybe that is exactly what is required.
Scotland have a job to do in Italy. They’d like to win – but they must not lose. They don’t need to bring home rosettes for artistic merit, they need to be sure that the outside centre channel is a closed door. They don’t need magic, they need a guy who will run hard, and fight with every fibre he has got to gain every single yard available.
“His work-rate is outstanding, he gets himself involved to make more tackles, to get on ball and he’s a very good defender,” said Townsend, when justifying his selection for Saturday’s must-win game against Italy in Rome. “In terms of his attack and his running lines, he’s improved every year – he’s a more all-round player.”
“Chris has been excellent for his club this year. He got the starting spot during the World Cup by how he played in the build-up and how he trained. I thought he was outstanding against Samoa [in Japan] and he’s carried on that form and added parts to his game with Gloucester [this season].
For too long now, Scotland have been nice to watch and nice to play against. Soft-centred assassins – deadly enough, but just as likely to shoot themselves in the foot as take down the opposition. After the World Cup debacle, we wanted them to be tougher – and Harris, at this stage in the team’s evolution, is the embodiment of that. You are not going to get progress without sacrifice.
“There was a really close decision around him and Huw [Jones] for this week but also for the first couple of games,” Townsend added. “We believe this is the right game for Chris to come in. This is the 23 which we believe gives us the best opportunity to win at the weekend.
“Huw got the nod in the first few games due to the form he’s been showing for Glasgow. It’s going to be a very competitive position with other centres coming into the mix over the next few years. Chris now has the opportunity to start the remaining two games.”
Skinner needs game time
Townsend added that Exeter Chiefs forward Sam Skinner had not made it into the squad this week because he has now got enough game time under his belt since recovering from the hamstring injury which wiped out his World Cup ambitions.
“He has trained with us the last few days, but we don’t believe he’s had enough game time for Exeter,” said the coach.
“He came off the bench at the weekend, he played three games for the A team prior to that, and he should play more games in the coming weeks which will put him in a stronger position for our final two games.”
Townsend added that Darcy Graham had not sufficiently recovered from the knee injury which kept hm out of the first two Six Nations games in time for this match. “He wasn’t in contention at all because he’s not fully fit,” said the coach.