Justin Harrison: 'Younger players aren't always better than the older ones'

In 2001, he fought the Lions – and won. Now 34, Bath's lock Justin Harrison is charging into the Heineken Cup's final stages. He tells Chris Hewett why he's still hungry for battle
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The Independent Online

It is almost eight years since Justin Harrison won his first cap for the Wallabies: that same night in Sydney, he also won the line-out that won the series against the strongest British Isles team in more than a quarter of a century, which said a good deal about his sense of occasion. Many of his countrymen consider this to be the second greatest deed performed by the outback boy from deepest Northern Territory, the first being his roughing-up of Austin Healey earlier in that tour. If the famous line-out steal, from under the nose of a chap called Johnson, was a gift to Australian rugby, the baiting of Healey was a gift to Australia.

Healey responded to Harrison the way Harrison wanted him to respond, by talking himself into a dead end. In cold print, he called his opponent a plank, a plod and an ape – not obviously the language of a man in control of the psychology of the situation. "Apart from anything else," says Eddie Jones, one of Harrison's favourite coaches, "it was pretty inaccurate. Justin is a bright footballer. One of the brightest, I reckon. It's just that he had a pretty tough upbringing out there in the middle of nowhere and drew on it in his rugby. They're the best players, the hungry ones. People like Justin make a team what it is."

Jones, a part of the Wallaby set-up when the Lions visited in 2001 and the main man when Australia reached the World Cup final two years later, first had dealings with Harrison in 1997, when he led an ACT Brumbies development team on a visit to Europe. One of the fixtures was against Bath at a rain- sodden Recreation Ground. "We threw the ball around despite the conditions, scored four tries and won the game," Jones recalls, before adding with a snigger: "I think we surprised them." Harrison, now clattering his way towards the end of his first season at Bath, remembers it well. "They put out a very strong side, but we had some good blokes ourselves: Jeremy Paul, Bill Young and Sam Cordingley were on that trip, and they all went on to play Test rugby," he said this week. "It didn't cross my mind for a minute that I might move here one day, but here I am, and I'm glad about it. This club took a chance on me, promoted me into an environment I didn't expect to be a part of at this stage of my career, and the experience has been everything I hoped it would be. I feel a real connection here, and when that happens, I'll always do everything in my power to reward the people around me with the best I can give."

Such connections are important to Harrison, who will be 35 later this month. He has played much of his rugby for sides who place great store on camaraderie – the Brumbies, the Wallabies, Ulster, Bath – and he responds best when the team dynamics are at their most intense. "Quite often in this game, players are simply given a role, a job description, and they fulfil it in a self-serving kind of way. I'm more interested in people playing for each other. Ultimately, it's the thing that separates the good teams from the bad. When I play well, I don't want to feel pleased for myself, alone. I want to feel pleased for bigger, better reasons."

When the force is with them – and despite a couple of recent pratfalls, they have been exceptional for much of this campaign – Bath capture that spirit of selflessness. Leicester, their great rivals, are virtually the embodiment of it, which is why they so rarely suffer a heavy defeat. The two clubs meet this evening in a Heineken Cup quarter-final that compensates for a profound lack of the exotic with a double helping of the claustrophobic. All Leicester-Bath games have the air of a heavyweight title fight about them and, at 6ft 8in and the best part of 18st, Harrison has some value in the tale of the tape. But his real value is in his attitude.

Something similar might be said of Jonny Wilkinson, of course, but Harrison is hardly one of life's Wilkinsons. He is not an obsessive: instead, he sees rugby in all its craziness and cynicism, as well as in its glory. "Rugby is full of distractions now," he said. "There's a circus element to it that wasn't there back in the amateur days, when people played for the love of it and nothing more. There are all sorts of things a modern player can hide behind, all sorts of agents and advisers who will give you a false sense of your own professionalism.

"It's why I prize the communal spirit so much. Partly, I see a game of rugby on a weekend as my reward for the effort I've put in through the week – effort that has won me selection. But more than that, it's an expression of loyalty. If my effort is matched by everyone else in the team, as it always is at Bath, then the greater reward is what I give to the side in total commitment. When the club signed me, there were a lot of question marks about what my role would be, about what I could offer.

"For me, it was a simple matter of wanting to be part of a group that enjoyed each other as much as they enjoyed their rugby. I've found that here." He found some of it during his early days at Ulster, too, but his stay in Belfast turned sour on him when his marriage ended after 13 months. From feeling as though he was "king of the world", he was left wondering if he had lost the best of himself for good. "It was a trying time for me, without a doubt," he admitted. "Until then, every experience had been a positive one – my life had been better year on year. Suddenly, things were different. I suppose I could have flown back to Australia and attempted to sort things out, but I didn't think I'd reached the pinnacle of anything rugby-wise, so I decided against going home."

Interestingly, he still considers himself short of his own pinnacle, despite his advanced age. "The good old amateur days – playing country rugby in New South Wales, comparing ruck-marks in the shower afterwards, taking pleasure in the fact that you'd put yourself in harm's way for the sake of your mates – were part of a different world. Do I enjoy the pressure of the big occasion in today's rugby? I'm not sure you need to enjoy it. What's crucial is that you welcome the pressure, the litmus test of playing at this level. Some people train brilliantly, then let themselves down on match day. I don't really understand that mindset. For me, the game is your moment of illumination after a long week's work.

"I believe I still respond to pressure in the right way, and I believe I have more to give. It disappoints me that there is this age barrier in rugby, this prejudice that says the younger player is automatically a better bet than the older one. There's a bit of that prejudice back home in Australia, I think. I'll happily admit that this is a challenging sport for a 34-year-old. I expose myself to more risk now – I'm hurt more often because I can't get away from as many people as I did. But my view of rugby hasn't changed. I'm still seeking maximal job satisfaction."

Having played his early Tests in the Wallaby engine room alongside the extraordinary John Eales – "He was not the most physical or aggressive player around, but he was certainly the most athletic, the most purpose-built second-rower of his time and he had the full quiver when it came to skills" – he knows what it is to operate in the presence of greatness. But Harrison would not be true to himself if he paid too much respect to anything, other than his own standards of commitment, honesty and integrity.

"The importance of this game against Leicester is not lost on me," he said. "I don't have a disregard for Bath's history of achievement in European rugby and I certainly don't disrespect the people who played here before me. I know that, during the professional era, Leicester are one of the teams who have wrested supremacy away from Bath, and I know how important it is to those who support us that we wrest it back. But I have to concentrate on my own moment in time. I've never really bought into the idea I'm doing it for 'them', whoever they might be. I'm not doing it for 'them' at all. I do what I do for me, and for the team, which in my mind amounts to the same thing. If we all think the same way, we'll be all right."

My Other Life

"I started studying marine biology, but then rugby started happening and it got in the way.

"I ended up with a degree in applied science, which had a big sports science element to it. I haven't followed that through, and I don't see myself going into sports science in the future. I don't play golf, like a lot of the other blokes – there are better things I can do with four hours of my time than walk around looking for a ball.

"Where will I end up? I'd like to think I'll raise a family in Australia one day, but I'm also intrigued to see how rugby develops here in Europe. I think the game will be every bit as global as football in years to come, and commercial reality says the hub of it will be here. Here and in the States.

"The Americans will be quite something in rugby when they figure out a way of making money from it."