Harris ready to justify the hysteria

Wales's newest No 10 is unfazed by rugby union Test debut despite only playing two and a half games in 15-a-side code
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The Independent Online

A nation awaits impatiently, feverishly almost, to see if Iestyn Harris, the 75th player to don the Welsh No 10 shirt, is made of the same stuff of the former legends who have graced that berth. This former Leeds, Great Britain and Wales Rugby League player has been chosen to follow in the sidesteps of Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies et al after just 200 minutes of union experience – and that is jet propulsion by anyone's standards.

But Harris is promising to produce his own brand of stand-off play. "I want to play No 10 my way. I want to do a good job, but Iestyn Harris's way, not someone else's. I like the running style of rugby, hopefully I can unleash the backs. That is what I want to do."

His remarkable performance against Glasgow, when he scored three tries and 31 points, was enough to convince the Wales selectors and the coach, Graham Henry. It also convinced the Cardiff supporters and the club has since sold out of their replica No 10 jerseys.

Harris hysteria has hit Wales hard, but it is no surprise given a start like that. "It was a dream home debut to score three tries," acknowledged Harris, "but I think it was also probably one of the worst things that could have happened to me, because after that the expectation following that game was a little bit too much."

The return match against the Scottish side the following week, which saw Harris reduced to near-mortal status, was therefore something of a relief. "To go up there and see the other side of the coin was a good thing for me certainly."

It did nothing to subdue the hype, however, and if selection were by election then Harris would have been voted into No 10 with a landslide. Notwithstanding the 25-year-old's lack of experience in the 15-a-side game, many in Wales are already looking far into the future and seeing him growing old in a red shirt.

This weight of expectation lies in thick folds across Harris's shoulders, but he is unfazed at what will confront him when he trots out against Argentina in Cardiff on Saturday. Instead, Harris said yesterday: "I am not apprehensive. I am just looking forward to it. It is something I have always wanted to do. I suppose I am slightly nervous, but I want to enjoy the occasion."

He has been helped in acclimatising to his new surroundings not only by his welcome into the national squad, but also at his club. "Everyone has accepted me at Cardiff with open arms, the players and the fans. Of course I get a lot of ribbing, but that was always going to happen, but there have been no negative vibes."

Harris admits that it has been his ambition since he was 17 to make the great leap in codes. "It is a dream come true, although I have to say that it has come along a lot sooner than I expected."

There have been other unexpected things as well, not least the reception he received when he made his very first appearance for Cardiff as a replacement. It was against Llanelli at Stradey Park. Harris was startled to find that while he was warming up before going on in the second half the Scarlets' fans were yelling out: "Good luck, Iestyn!"

"If that had been in Rugby League and I was warming up in front of the opposition fans they would have been spitting at me, " Harris said. "I could not believe how much everyone wanted me to succeed."

And his Wales team-mates are in no doubt that he will too. Scott Quinnell, the Wales No 8 back after a seven-month lay-off following surgery on a knee, announced: "Iestyn is a tremendous talent and a great rugby player, be it league or union. He brings a great footballing brain into the side, he knows all the angles going."

More importantly, the Welsh coach agrees. "I think he's got all the bits and pieces. He is a running fly-half, which means defenders have to concentrate on him. He attracts defenders, which opens up holes elsewhere for other players to exploit," Henry said.

For all his talent, Harris is not expecting an easy ride. "I would expect Argentina to target me, but I am ready for it and I will deal with it as and when it comes," he said.

But he is promising no miracles, no dream starts. "I have only played two and a half games of union. I am looking forward to the challenge, but it is going to be tough. This is just the first step. And all I can do is my best." Wales believe that this should be enough.