New Faces for '94: Versatile Harris side-steps the burden of expectancy: Warrington and Wales should benefit from a product of rugby league's controversial Academy. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
IN LESS than 12 months, Iestyn Harris has gone from being an Oldham schoolboy with an odd first name to being one of the first names cited to prove that rugby league's future is bright.

In the first three months of this season, Harris made his debuts for the Great Britain Academy side, the international Under-21 team, and Warrington's first team. He has also demonstrated that Welshness comes from the blood rather than the birthplace by being called into the Welsh squad for the full international against France.

At 17, he could be excused for feeling that he has made as much progress for one season as can be reasonably expected. But, having had a taste of the big time, Harris is itching for more.

'I didn't expect to get into the first team this season, but I got three games last month,' he said. 'I was disappointed when Brian Johnson rested me after that, but I've got plenty of time.'

Harris had to be content with a place in the squad, sitting in the stand scribbling statistics, for Warrington's Regal Trophy tie against Wigan earlier this month - the match that ended a nine-game winning run. 'It was frustrating, but I know what I've got to do. I've got to bide my time and keep my mouth shut.'

Harris has the obvious talent that suggests that, even given Johnson's understandable caution over asking too much of him too soon, he will not have to bide his time or hold his tongue for very long.

Young players with his level of skill, the natural side-step, educated hands and all-round kicking game, do not come along very often. Although he has been eased into first- team rugby on the wing, Johnson believes he will be a full-back eventually. Harris himself wants to play centre and, with his range of skills, especially his ability to dip his shoulder and slide away from tackles, it is possible to visualise him already as a long-term successor to Jonathan Davies in the Warrington threequarters.

Iestyn's is an island of tricky pronounciation in Oldham because his grandfather, Norman Harris, came north from Newbridge after World War II and played for Oldham, Leigh and Rochdale, as well as representing Wales at rugby league.

Although his grandson's accent is pure Lancashire, his claim to Welsh qualification is far from tenuous.

'My mum and dad were born in Wales and I always felt more Welsh and wanted to play for Wales,' Harris explained.

That is good news for a country that needs all the young, quality players it can find, with the World Cup coming up in 1995.

'I was in the squad for the match against New Zealand in October, and the atmosphere in the dressing-room before the match was incredible. Now I'm hoping to be in the team for the match against France in February.'

Those ambitions, however, have to run in tandem with the everyday reality of life as a sixth-former at North Chadderton Comprehensive, in the first year of A levels in Economics and Design Technology.

One consequence of Harris signing for Warrington on his 17th birthday last June, after playing for their Academy team as a 16-year-old amateur, was that he could no longer play for his school team.

In fact, he tries to keep his sporting career and his academic life separate, although he notices that the time he has available to devote to his studies is shrinking fast.

Both Warrington and British rugby league in general are less concerned with his eventual grades than with his significance in justifying their policy.

Warrington's plan has been to range across the north of England, mopping up the best in young talent for the future. All the signs are that they are going to reap a long- term benefit.

For the game as a whole, Harris's remarkable progress demonstrates the success of the Academy competition - so controversial during its inception - as a fast track for bringing through the brightest talent.

As the League's Academy executive, John Kear, said, there is no way that Harris could have made the series of leaps he has without the elite youth competition to develop his ability.

At such an early stage of his career, Harris carries a burden unknown to many players twice his age. All the signs are that he will carry it without buckling.

(Photograph omitted)

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