Leeds rely on Harris factor

Challenge Cup final: Holders find themselves underdogs after disastrous start to Super League campaign
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The Independent Online

"Everyone talks about a one-man team," the Leeds coach, Dean Lance, said. "It's not a one-man team... but he's one damned good man to have around." He was speaking before Iestyn Harris's successful return on Friday night to a Leeds team relying, to an almost indecent extent, on his inspiration if they are to overcome the odds when they face Bradford in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield on Saturday.

A year ago Leeds, captained by Harris, won their first major trophy for 15 years at Wembley, beating the London Broncos by a cup-final record score. This weekend, if some inside and outside Headingley are to be believed, he is the man who stands between them and a similar embarrassment at the hands of Bradford, whose early-season form has been as devastating as Leeds' has been desultory.

"His presence on the field, whether it's a five out of 10 performance or a 10 out of 10 performance, really lifts the players around him," Lance said. "I played alongside Mal Meninga and I know how one player can lift a side."

The opposing coach in Edinburgh, Matthew Elliott, has a slightly different way of looking at it. "If you mark Leeds out of 10 now, you add Harris to the side and you can double it. If they're playing against Bradford you can double it again, and if they're playing Bradford in a Challenge Cup final, you arrive at 10 out of 10."

If this is all a heavy burden of expectation to lay on Harris, then he conceals the strain well. If his comeback match, against Huddersfield-Sheffield two days ago, was closer to a five than a 10 on his own personal scale, it was surely no coincidence that Leeds finally won a Super League match at the sixth attempt. It just happened to be the first complete match in which he had been unhampered by injury.

He might be one of the very few rugby league players to enter the heady world of personal endorsements - and the only one to appear in Hello! - but he remains the unassuming young man who coaches his local side in Oldham. His feet remain sufficiently on the ground for him to shrug off this "one-man team" stuff like a mistimed tackle.

It was true, certainly, that there were other factors, apart from him, behind Leeds breaking their duck against Huddersfield-Sheffield. There was the fact that the two major strike forwards, Adrian Morley and Barrie McDermott, were back from suspension and that Ryan Sheridan showed a few glimpses of the form that made him, more than Harris, the key man in last season's cup run.

Perhaps the more compelling evidence for the overriding importance of Harris came in the previous game at Warrington - one in which he did not play. For almost 10 minutes Leeds laid siege to the try-line without being able to score an equalising try. To a man, everyone at Wilderspool that day would have backed Harris to produce that try - and possibly Leeds to go on to win - but he is having none of it.

"I don't think that if I'd played we would have won," he said. "I don't think anyone playing would have made any difference to what was just a poor performance. It has been frustrating watching, because we haven't played anything like we can do. Confidence is down and I genuinely believe that's what it's all down to."

And why is that? "It's an accumulation. Dean Lance has added a few things and it's taken a little time to get used to it. Then you're losing games and the press and the crowd get on your back." As captain and, despite being only 23, senior player, it is part of Harris' responsibility to put that right. "We've still got a lot of team spirit here. We've probably just lost track of the desire to win. We have to look to ourselves and see what it is that drives us. We've got together as a team, without any coaching staff, and everyone has been honest. It's easy to say, 'It's not my fault'. But, instead, people have been saying, 'It's my fault. I missed that tackle'."

That sort of self-criticism might help, but where Harris can really rescue Leeds is on the field. His ability to swing a game makes him - even ahead of Wigan's Andy Farrell - the player most missed by his club when he is absent.

Now that his long-term future is settled at Headingley - putting a stop, for now, to the tedious round of "Iestyn for union" stories that enliven slow news days in Wales - plans for the next few years revolve around him.

It is not just at Leeds that they need him to perform on Saturday. Selling out Murrayfield means that one half of the justification for taking the final to Scotland has been fulfilled, but the code needs the match to be a real contest before it can truly be declared a success.

"It's going to be tough, because Bradford are the most confident they have been for the last three years," says Harris. "Our confidence has been rock-bottom and we will obviously go in as underdogs.

"Nobody's hyping it up this time, because nobody expects us to win. Another difference is that last year everyone knew what our side was going to be. This year, there's a squad of 20 or 22 and it could be any 17."

Not quite; the first name on the team-sheet, literally and symbolically, will be that of Iestyn Harris. And where there is Harris, there is hope.