Harris creed's harsh lesson

Tim Glover at Twickenham sees the changing face of rugby
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The Independent Online

Iestyn Harris had his 15 minutes of union fame yesterday and it didn't go at all according to plan. The one-time boy wonder of rugby league wrote a little footnote to the rich history of Twickenham by appearing in the first hybrid team to play in the Middlesex Sevens, or indeed any competition.

Iestyn Harris had his 15 minutes of union fame yesterday and it didn't go at all according to plan. The one-time boy wonder of rugby league wrote a little footnote to the rich history of Twickenham by appearing in the first hybrid team to play in the Middlesex Sevens, or indeed any competition.

Harris, the captain of Leeds Rhinos, the city's league team, spearheaded a dual-code side containing members of Leeds Tykes, the union outfit, in the classic charity sevens.

It has refuelled speculation about Harris' future, although on this evidence Leeds Rhinos and the Tykes were in the dark on the question of breaking the sevens code. As teams like the international Penguins, an invitational side recruited principally from the South Sea Islands, showed, this form of the game has its own lifestyle, and the team from "Leeds Rugby" were ill-equipped.

They were drilled by Phil Davies, the former Wales No 8 who coaches the Tykes, but they had time for only two training sessions. They could have done with 22.

Graham Henry, the Wales coach, would like to recruit Harris, although he may have a few years to wait. In the interim it is understood the Welsh Rugby Union are interested in playing him in the World Cup Sevens in the new year. "We'll have to see," Harris said. "They may not want me after this."

This was his first taste of the Twickenham experience, and he was impressed with the facilities somewhat more than the abbreviated game. "It's a beautiful stadium," Harris said. "I can't imagine what it would be like when it's full."

This was not only Harris' debut at Twickenham but his first touch of sevens rugby. Under the circumstances, Leeds did not do too badly against a useful Saracens team, complete with their new signing from France, Thomas Castaignÿde, in the first round.

Although Harris laid on a spectacular try for the young wing Mark Calderwood, who ran the length of the pitch, Saracens enjoyed the lion's share of possession and ran out 26-14 winners. "It's a fast game, isn't it?" said a battered-looking Harris. "We just couldn't get the ball and you can't keep defending in sevens."

Worse was to follow. Having been knocked out of the competition proper, Leeds found no scrap of compensation in the Plate event. They were shell- shocked 33-10 by the Army. "I found the whole thing strange," Harris said. "Especially the rucks and mauls."

Harris was born in Oldham but his family came from Newbridge. "I regard myself as totally Welsh," he said. He had a chat with Henry at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last season and although he has signed a three-year contract with Leeds Rhinos - taking a pay cut in rejecting offers from the 15-man game - he sees his future with a union club in the land of his father.

"Jonathan Davies was my boyhood hero and I've always had an interest in union. I want to play the game at some stage and I would be happy to join a club allocated by the WRU."

He has spent seven seasons in league and isn't sure whether his best position in union would be full-back or stand-off. "I'd have to test it out," he said. "I think the club scene in league is stronger, but in international rugby, union is leaps and bounds ahead. The two codes are getting closer in terms of speed and fitness but I think it'll be a long time before they become one."

Harris will be back at the Millennium Stadium playing for Wales against New Zealand in the Rugby League World Cup, but he had no time to dwell on yesterday's disappointment. Today he will play for the Rhinos at Huddersfield in the 13-man code.

Yesterday it was the Penguins who set the standard. It was not altogether surprising considering they contained, in the Fijian Waisale Serevi and the New Zealander Eric Rush, two of the greatest exponents of the sevens art. Serevi, the former Leicester scrum-half who captained the Penguins to victory in this tournament last season, again inspired a side that had comfortable wins over Rotherham and Samurai Seven en route to the semi-finals, where they easily disposed of Newcastle.

In the earlier semi-final, last year's beaten finalists, Saracens, emerged 28-26 victors over Northampton, who on their last appearance at Twickenham lifted the Heineken European Cup.

The first Middlesex Sevens was held in 1926, and was dominated in its early years by Harlequins and Wavell Wakefield. In recent years, as an end- of-season showpiece, it had lost some of its attraction, not only to spectators but particularly to professional players, who had more serious business to attend to. Hence the switch to August from May, with the incentive to the winners of a cheque for £50,000. The glorious weather was a bonus.

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