Rugby League: Harris enjoys the gift of simplicity

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The Independent Online
AN OPINION held here too long to be lightly dismissed is that the class performer in any sporting field makes no demands upon the audience. Even at first sight it isn't necessary to probe for hidden qualities or appreciate some subtle role in the wider scheme of things. "You could come fresh to the experience and still know," somebody said on Saturday at Wembley.

An old Welsh rugby union international, he was talking about Iestyn Harris and probably wishing that when there was serious talk of it the 22-year-old captain of Leeds Rhinos could have been persuaded to switch codes.

In that Harris didn't dominate the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final or run away with the Lance Todd Trophy for best individual performance (the 20 points and eight successful kicks that brought him a share of two records was obviously less significant than Leroy Rivett's four dazzling tries) singling him out for special attention may seem perverse to some readers.

Since there is enough Welshness in Harris to have ensured his commitment to the national rugby league team there also is the risk that this writer will be charged with bias.

It is easily answered. Harris's qualities combine to form the impression that anyone with a true feel for sport gets when watching the proper application of natural gifts.

The greatest footballer in history, Pele, is remembered for staggering feats of virtuosity but nobody better understood the importance of simplicity. "It is a crime to make things difficult for others in the team," I remember him saying.

More spectacular contributions were made to the ultimately overwhelming victory Leeds achieved but the way in which Harris applied himself to problems set by spirited opposition was fascinating.

As pointed out by my colleague Dave Hadfield developments that enabled London Broncos to establish a 10-point lead and conjure up thoughts of an upset comparable with last year's defeat of Wigan by the Sheffield Eagles, forced Harris to make earlier use of his extensive repertoire.

When Harris's talent was first revealed in the colours of Warrington a great deal of thought was given to how it could be best exploited, the position in which he could be most effective.

The former Warrington hero Mike Nicholas, who now manages the Welsh national rugby league team, recalls this occupying the attention of its astute coach Clive Griffiths. "When you are blessed with a player of Iestyn's potential you want to find exactly the right place for him," Nicholas said.

Experience has taught Harris to use his long pass with more discretion and it had the effect on Saturday of stretching the Broncos' cover. A tactical switch that Leeds have found consistently productive is to bring on another 22-year-old, Marcus St Hilaire, at full-back with Harris moving to stand-off.

Balance, good hands, vision and now improved decision-making are the things that cause even the most demanding of past players from both codes to drool over Harris. "Even when he's not quite at his best, when there is a temporary desertion of touch, I love watching him," one said on Saturday.

It was impossible accurately to pinpoint the moment when the Broncos' resistance was finally broken but when Harris fired the ball from left to right for Anthony Farrell and Richie Blackmore to set up Rivett's second try you sensed that their impending defeat would be overwhelming.

A while after the match I came Harris standing just inside the door of what passes for an interview room at Wembley - typical of the inadequacies that justified its destruction. Clutching the beribboned Challenge Cup, he was waiting with Rivett to be interviewed. "They gave us a hard match," he whispered, "but our possession wore them down." Possession and in the immense strength in attack and defence of the Leeds second-row forwards.

The absence of rugby union writers - "I want nothing to do with it," one said to me of rugby league recently - from Saturday's match is fresh proof of pathetic entrenchment.

Rugby league has long since moved on from an era when old-time sports columnists took up the Challenge Cup final patronisingly as an annual exhibition of manliness in the capital.

Its traditions may be set in the divides of industrialisation but it is essentially modern in attitude and presentation.

Anyone who chooses to question rugby league's credibility should be met by the remark, "Run along sonny, you bother me".