A future invested in Iestyn

Dave Hadfield looks at the 20-year-old signed to be the new head boy at Headingley
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The Independent Online
THERE is nothing in sport as worthy of celebration as the return to the arena of a shining talent whose career has been interrupted. No wonder that they were putting out the bunting for Iestyn Harris at Headingley last week.

Harris's signing for Leeds brought to an end one of rugby league's most convoluted transfer sagas. It all started last July when, disgruntled at being shunted from his favourite stand-off position by Warrington, he was transfer-listed at a world record pounds 1.35m. Perhaps Warrington believed they could get that figure, or something close to it; there were whispers that he had been lined up for Cardiff by his old team-mate Jonathan Davies, and this was a time when ludicrous sums of money seemed feasible. But their handling of the matter became increasingly bizarre when they announced in advance that they would not select him for the last three matches of the season.

Harris went on tour with Great Britain, enjoying only mixed success on the ill-fated trip around the Pacific, and was generally expected to sign for St Helens when he got back. It was the Saints' unsettling interest that Warrington blamed for the whole thing.

The move never happened. Looking at the evidence of the tour and assessing the progress of players such as Tommy Martyn and Karle Hammond, Saints gradually cooled on the deal. Their offer did not come anywhere near Warrington's figure and negotiations eventually stalled, leaving Harris in effect stranded. His position at Warrington became more and more untenable as they required him to train on his own - at 5.30 in the morning - rather than with the rest of the team. That was followed by accusations that he had played in a charity football match after declaring himself unfit to turn out for his employers.

And, all the time, watching quietly from the sidelines, there was Gary Hetherington. The Leeds chief executive had made one move for Harris, only to be apparently rebuffed by a player determined to go to Saints. According to Hetherington now, it wasn't quite like that. "He had an agreement with Saints and as far as we were concerned that was where he was going. It wasn't a matter of him not wanting to play for Leeds," he says.

When the Saints deal finally broke down in the predictable acrimony, Hetherington made his move again. On his way to watch his old club Sheffield Eagles play at St Helens on Easter Monday, Hetherington called at the house Harris still shares with his parents on the outskirts of Oldham. There, over cups of tea, he reassured himself that Harris did, after all, want to play for Leeds and renewed his pounds 300,000 offer to Warrington. On Thursday afternoon, they accepted.

That leaves Harris a profoundly relieved young man. "There were times when I wondered how it was all going to work out," he admits. "But that's all in the past now. I just want to get back to playing rugby."

Now that he is doing just that, what will Leeds get for their club record fee? The short answer to that is a 20-year-old of obvious talent whose best role in a team game is still uncertain. Harris starts with a host of natural advantages. Big enough to play his junior rugby at loose forward, he has the pace of a three-quarter. He has a dazzling side-step and arguably the best all-round kicking game in Britain. He sees himself as a stand- off and, such is the shortage of British-born talent in that position, there is a collective desire for him to succeed there. At Warrington, however, they felt he lacked the craft and the maturity for the role.

Hetherington got to know him well on the Great Britain tour and believes he will grow into a giant of the game. "People forget how young he still is. He's very experienced as a player but, at the end of the day, he's still only a 20-year-old," he says. "But he is a talent and I think he will thrive here. In this club and this city, he has the right stage on which to blossom."

With a nice sense of history, Hetherington equated Harris's signing on Friday with that of another Welsh international, Lewis Jones, 45 years previously. That was also a club record, although, taking the price of fish and chips as an index of inflation, the pounds 6,000 it cost Leeds then is equivalent to pounds 384,500 now.

Jones himself was on hand to endorse the new man. "The game in this day and age is short of brilliant individuals - and he is a brilliant player, absolutely brilliant," he said, leaving little doubt over Harris's brilliance. Just how brightly Harris will shine in his new setting is still a matter for conjecture. But, after the 5.30am runs and the weird half-light of sporting limbo, it is a relief to the game just to have him back in the daylight once more.