CHRIS HARRIS got a bit prickly when asked about his first start for Scotland, which happened to be against Wales at the start of the 2018 Six Nations, when he struggled to find his feet as Gregor Townsend’s side crashed to a dispiriting 34-7 defeat.
Given that Scotland are due to return to Cardiff this Saturday, it was inevitable that Harris’ previous experience at the Principality Stadium would be raised when he fulfilled his media duties earlier this week, but the 29-year-old was not impressed.
“It always seems to crop up, doesn’t it?” he snapped. “I don’t think I’ve mentioned it for a year and a half. It seems to be the media wanting me to bite on it.
“It was a game that didn’t go well for the team. I’m not really thinking about it. We’re just going to go down and play the game that is ahead of us as opposed to thinking about what is in the past.
“For myself, I think I’ve come on leaps and bounds since that first start. I’m just looking forward to the weekend. I’ve been involved in all the games so far and I just want to keep playing and enjoying myself. I’m loving every minute of it.”
In fact, Harris was pretty prickly in general, which seems to be in keeping with the Scotland camp as a whole at the moment. Part of that is perhaps to do with the criticism directed their way by the media since their World Cup flop, but some of it perhaps relates to a general hardening of attitudes throughout the squad. They don’t want to play nice anymore. Nice guys have a habit of coming last.
“It’s not hidden that the mental side of the game is a massive thing,” he said at one point. “It is not a surprise that it plays a big factor – it is just something you have to put to one side, almost, and focus on the game. You have to play the game, not the occasion.”
Harris is perhaps tetchier than most because his suitability to the No 13 jersey has been the focus of greater debate, with fan favourites such as Huw Jones and Rory Hutchinson missing out to his rather more pragmatic qualities.
Making his mark
Slowly but surely, he is winning over his doubters, with his involvement in Sean Maitland‘s second try against France – a powerful 20 yard break and then quickest to react to rescue possession when the ball is in danger of squirting loose after Ali Price is tackle under the posts – demonstrating that he is more than just a defensive bulwark.
But he perhaps senses, and feels frustrated, that there is a tendency to focus on what he doesn’t offer rather than acknowledge what he does bring to the party.
“I’m pretty confident with my defence. I am confident with my attack, but it has just always been a bit of a work-on,” he acknowledged. “That’s that, really. When I get the ball, I just have to back myself and go with it. I’m getting a few more touches of the ball, which always helps.
“I would never say that I am comfortable. I think I’m a bit more mentally comfortable, I guess. That’s a big side of the game I’ve had to work on. But that’s the biggest step.
“I think I’ve always had the ability to play at this level, it has just taken me a couple of goes to get it right. I’m just enjoying my rugby and I think I’m putting in some decent performances.
“There’s nerves, there is the fear that you are going to make a mistake, but you just can’t feel that. You’ve just got to have confidence in yourself that you are going to go out and perform.
“I’ve never doubted myself. It is just a big stage – international rugby – it is another step up. It was the same when I was playing club rugby and I moved to Tynedale, it was another step up. You’ve got to be pretty mentally strong to play at any level,” continued the Carlisle-born centre, who was a member of the Newcastle Falcons Academy whilst studying architecture at Northumbria University between 2009 and 2013, also playing club rugby for Tynedale in National League One (the third tier of English rugby) during that period.
After graduating, he played for England Counties on a tour of Belgium in 2013 and had a short stint on loan to Rotherham Titans in the second tier English Championship before scoring two tries on his Premiership debut for Falcons against Saracens in December 2014. He qualifies to play for Scotland through his Edinburgh-born grandmother.
Onwards and upwards
Scotland go into Saturday’s match on a high after last Sunday’s derailment of France’s Grand Slam dream, but they know from bitter experience that there is a huge step up in intensity coming on Saturday.
“It was just a good all-round performance,” said Harris. “I know they had 14 men but you can only play what’s in front of you. I think we were happy with that performance.
“I’m happy with how I played. There’s always room for improvement. You always look back at your game and see where you can get better. You never just accept your performance … well … I don’t anyway.
“I think our defence is the best in the championship at the moment,” he added, with bullishness but not arrogance. “That just proves where we’ve come. We are improving and the exciting thing is that there is so much more to give as we continue to get better. The key is just buying in and everyone has done that from one to 15, and the subs, and the guys who are not involved. It is working nicely.
“I think Wales are three points behind us. But it is big for us too. If we win then we are likely to finish third which would be a good outcome for us. If we lose, we could end up finishing fifth. There is a lot at stake for us, but a lot of pressure on them to put in a performance.”
And with that, he skulks off back to the team room. It wasn’t a charm offensive. But he has made his point.