Harris faces the fury of former fans in Bradford charge for final glory

Stand-off who crossed the Yorkshire divide tells Dave Hadfield why he will be lining up for the Bulls in today's showdown at Old Trafford
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The Independent Online

One day, far in the future, Iestyn Harris hopes that the fans who used to adore him will stop calling him Judas. He knows that it will not be today.

One day, far in the future, Iestyn Harris hopes that the fans who used to adore him will stop calling him Judas. He knows that it will not be today.

For Leeds supporters, Harris is the hero who left the tribe, going off to play rugby union and then - far, far worse - returning as a Bradford Bull.

If you watch the Rhinos from the terraces in Headingley's South Stand, the sense of betrayal is complete. When he plays for his new team in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford tonight, Judas will be one of the more affectionate terms of endearment.

Harris chose to join Leeds' bitter local rivals despite what the Rhinos claimed was a contract to return to them, if and when he left Wales.

Leeds have since withdrawn threats of legal action against Bradford - and particularly an allegation that they "coerced" him to sign for them - but they are still pursuing their former stand-off for breach of contract. This is a lot more than your standard case of sour grapes over a favourite son moving on.

"There's been a lot of things said and a lot of things written," Harris says. "I can't blame fans who have read these things for believing them.

"It will all come out in the wash eventually and hopefully they will then understand a bit better." Even if they never do, Harris remains adamant that he has done nothing wrong and will not let either the pending court case or the waves of hostility sweeping down from the stands affect his focus on the game.

"If you start worrying about outside problems, you won't perform. There are some strong characters around me in this team and all our concentration has to be on this match."

Despite his ongoing conflict with the Leeds hierarchy - the chief executive, Gary Hetherington, in particular - Harris still numbers some Rhinos players among his best friends in the game.

He used to travel in from Oldham with two of today's opponents, Barrie McDermott and Kevin Sinfield, and stayed in touch with them and others during his exile in Wales.

Sinfield is, in many ways, the inheritor of Harris' mantle as well as his protégé. "We used to travel together all the time and became good friends in that three or four years we had together," he says. "Kevin's a top-quality player in his own right. He captains the side extremely well. People think he's older than he is, but he's just going to get better and better."

It is the interrupted trajectory of Harris' own rugby league career that has demanded attention over the past few weeks. After three years away, playing a game that demanded a different approach, many thought that he would struggle to adapt.

"I came back into it open-minded and found it very quick," he says. "But I feel I've built up into it over the weeks." His new coach, Brian Noble, says he is ahead of where he expected him to be at this stage and his new team-mates are clearly relishing playing alongside him.

The Bulls full-back, Michael Withers, is one who believes Harris has already added a missing factor.

"Since he's come into our team, he's moved us up an extra gear, given us that little extra that we needed - and, if we win it, it will taste that little bit better for him against Leeds." If it was the thought of walking out at a packed Millennium Stadium wearing the red of Wales that lured him into rugby union, then it was the prospect of days like today that drew him back to his first love.

"The Grand Final is a massive, massive occasion. It's one I wanted to be a part of when I signed for four years with Bradford. Now, after 12 games, I'm already in a Grand Final."

Harris has been here before, captaining Leeds in their defeat by Wigan in the inaugural Grand Final in 1998, as well as lifting the Challenge Cup for them the following season. His place in the history of his former club is secure, but he is as confident that he has done the right thing in not going back there as he is content to be back in rugby league. "You have to make decisions in life about what you think is important to you.

"The [Rugby Union] World Cup was a big thing for me, but I wanted to be back in rugby league and living in the north of England, where my son can see his grandparents."

He accepts now that there will always be that slight hint of the outsider about him, not just from Leeds' perspective but from that of the game as a whole.

If he gets anything wrong, it must inevitably be because of the corrupting effect union has had on his skills. "You're always going to get a little bit of stick, but the two games have got a lot of respect for each other now.

"The players have got respect for each other and that has made switching back easier." With the possible exception of 20,000 jeering Leeds fans this evening, his old game is glad to have him back.

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