Iestyn Harris: Rallying his motley crew under the banner of Welsh pride
Crusaders' new coach tells Dave Hadfield of life at the stricken club ahead of their visit to the Millennium – a stadium he knows only too well
Thursday 10 February 2011
There will be 14 clubs trying to get their Super League season off to a convincing start in Cardiff this weekend. For only one team and one coach, however, will there be the extra pressure and motivation of representing an entire nation.
Iestyn Harris will be back at the Millennium Stadium, where he made his rugby union debut for Wales a decade ago. But this time he will be in charge of the Principality's only top-flight rugby league side and he hopes they will draw as much inspiration from the surroundings as him when they face Salford on Sunday.
"It's a magnificent stadium," says Harris. "For me, there's nowhere like it in the world as a rugby stadium. The guys will go out there with a lot of pride as the only Super League team in Wales. They will be inspired by representing the whole of the country."
As he recalls in his autobiography, There and Back, Harris does not have entirely happy memories of his first Wales union cap. Fresh out of rugby league and with just a couple of club games under his belt in a code he had never played before, he was thrown in at the deep end at fly-half against Argentina. The WRU was eager for a swift return on the money it had invested in Harris and picked him too early. "The game was something of a nightmare for me and I suppose I could have predicted it," he wrote about the 30-16 defeat. "I really didn't know what I was doing."
He was to gather happier memories of the place among his 24 other caps before returning to league with Bradford in 2004, having satisfied the compulsion to play at what his Welsh-born granddad Norman Harris, a fellow cross-coder, still called the Arms Park. In playing terms, his return to his original game was only a qualified success, but his eyes were already on a coaching career.
"I've been working towards this for a long time," he says as he surveys the scene at the Crusaders' home in Wrexham. "It's just come around a bit quicker than I thought."
The reason for that lies in the short but turbulent history of Wales' Super League franchise. Born as the Celtic Crusaders in Bridgend, they relocated to Wrexham and dropped the "Celtic" last year after they lost their funding in South Wales.
Harris, after a farewell season as a player at Featherstone, was assistant coach as Crusaders, unfazed by such minor details as having six players deported, amazed everyone by making the play-offs last year. Soon after that, they lost their head coach, Brian Noble, who could not face another winter of financial uncertainty. Step forward Harris, already coach of the Wales national side, with the task of grasping a very slippery baton.
After what seemed an eternity of teetering on the brink, Crusaders' inherited debts took them into administration. Now under new ownership, they find themselves with a four-point deduction at the start of the new season and without several of last year's key players. Harris admits that recruitment has been hampered and he also has three players waiting for work permits before they can rejoin the club.
It has been a difficult winter, but it has left him with a squad that is not short of character – or characters. Take Jarrod Sammut, for instance. The Malta international looks like a slightly scarier version of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean and has earned a reputation in his short time in Britain as the most unpredictable player in Super League. "I haven't got a clue what I'm going to do," he says. "So it's pretty difficult for anyone else to know."
Sammut has been the target for other Super League clubs, notably Hull, but has pledged his immediate future to Crusaders, much to Harris's relief. "He's a player who plays on instinct, on what he sees in front of him. He can win a match for you out of nothing," says Harris. "Mind you, he can lose you one or two as well."
If Sammut looks as though he would be more at home climbing the rigging with a dagger clenched in his teeth, there is a filmic quality as well about Gareth Thomas. Mickey Rourke thinks so, at any rate. The Hollywood star wants to make a film of his life, particularly the way Thomas came out as the world's first openly gay rugby international. He will be followed at Cardiff this weekend by a screen-writer gathering material. It might have smacked of gimmickry when Crusaders signed the former Wales union captain last year, but he did well enough for Harris to be planning to bring him off the wing and closer to the centre of the action this season.
Thomas is another for whom going back to the Millennium Stadium is an unexpected thrill. "I'm as excited as I was when I came down as a 13-year-old to the old Arms Park on the train from the Valleys," he says. "It's a great concept to show the people of South Wales what rugby league is all about and that they do have an alternative to rugby union."
One player Harris has managed to bring in this winter is the former Wakefield prop Richard Moore, who is playing despite his two-year-old son being in the middle of treatment for leukaemia.
The crucial statistic for Harris, however, is that eight of his 25-man squad are now Welsh-born, with more to be called upon, if necessary, from the South Wales Scorpions, the Neath-based club two divisions down in Championship One. With both his Crusaders and Wales hats on, Harris is excited by the talent at his disposal, especially a player like the 22-year-old half-back Lloyd White, for whom he sees a great future as a hooker.
In Harris's ideal world, young Welshmen like White could acquire a national profile in the country, particularly through events like Millennium Magic. It is no wonder a coach born and bred in Oldham attaches such importance to going "home" this weekend.
Meanest member of the Crusaders' cast
The unpredictability of Jarrod Sammut has caused the player to be likened to a 'slightly scarier' version of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Harris's life and times
Born Oldham, England, 25 June 1976
Nickname Welsh Wizard
Positions Stand-off, full-back
Clubs Rugby League: Warrington (1993-97); Leeds Rhinos (1997-2001); Bradford (04-08); Featherstone (09). Rugby Union: Cardiff (2001-2004)
Honours Man of Steel 1998; Wales (rugby league) 18 games, 12 tries; Great Britain (RL): 13-2. Wales (rugby union): 25 games, 1 try
Coaching Wales RL: Head coach (Sept 2009-present); Crusaders: assistant to Brian Noble (Oct 2009- Sept 2010); head coach (Nov 2010-present)
Career facts Switch to Leeds from Warrington was for a then record transfer fee of £350,000.
* Move to union cost the WRU £1.5m in 2001
* Played for Wales in 2003 Rugby Union World Cup, where they were knocked out by the eventual finalists Australia.
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