About a year ago, one of the prints I sometimes consult in the course of my researches carried a tale to suggest that the defection of Iestyn Harris from rugby league to rugby union no longer fell into the category of idle rumour. Since Harris is unquestionably one of the greatest talents at present working in either code, and sport in Wales can do with a 24-carat hero, it was the source of much gratification here when he chose the land of his fathers rather than England where he was born.
Anyway, last weekend, following the brilliant performance Harris gave on his full debut for Cardiff after joining them from Leeds in a deal struck in conjunction with the Welsh Rugby Union, an excited voice came on the telephone. It was that of my friend Mike Nicholas, formerly of Aberavon and Warrington, who has played a big part in Harris's development. "Rugby league 46 [the number of points Harris and another former league player Anthony Sullivan put up in a Heineken Cup tie] Glasgow seven," he said.
Without prejudice – "I enjoy both codes but preferred playing league," he says – Nicholas argues that superior technical standards in the 13-a-side game put it ahead of union in the quest for complete footballers.
Unequivocally, he nominates Harris and Henry Paul, the New Zealander who has joined Gloucester from Bradford Bulls, and who, given yesterday's announcement, has been fast-tracked by England, as the outstanding footballers in these islands. "There are still plenty of people who look down on rugby league, especially among the rugby-writing fraternity," Nicholas said when we spoke again yesterday, "but because union is a specialised game it's league that produces the most rounded players. Nobody has a chance in league unless they can run, pass and tackle. Backs are often as powerful as forwards."
In Welsh terms, the perfect player would be able to run like Barry John, tackle like Jack Matthews and match Gareth Edwards in the passing department. If played at outside-half, Harris will have to improve his tactical kicking but Nicholas does not see anything to hold him back. Having played with the Liverpool and England forward Michael Owen in golf matches, he identifies similar advantages.
"They both have a terrific attitude and a firm family base. Lads who have been brought up to respect old-fashioned values and principles. Not easily led."
Perhaps the most important thing about Harris is presence. In common with all outstanding sports figures he makes no demands upon the audience. It is not necessary to probe for hidden qualities in his game or to appreciate some subtle role in the wider tactical scheme of things.
Watching Pele play for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup finals, an American with no experience of the game saw someone special. It was not necessary to be informed about horse racing when Lester Piggott was in the saddle. Watching Muhammad Ali for the first time, you knew.
With them and others, Harris shares the natural gifts of balance and timing. Playing for Leeds in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley two years ago he was immediately superior to everyone on the field, throwing long flat passes off both hands, his vision exceptional.
Strong too. "Lawrence Dallaglio has said that it will be interesting to see how Iestyn fares against the big-hitters in union," Nicholas added. "I've got plenty of respect for Dallaglio and happen to think that he's one of the few union forwards who could make it in league. But have no fears, Iestyn has grown up dealing with big-hitters. When he played for us [until he recently stepped down, Nicholas managed the Wales rugby league team] he cleaned out guys who weren't used to coming off second best. He's battle-hardened."
If Harris has the shoulders to bear the weight of national expectation already raised by last week's contribution to Cardiff's victory, he may find it more difficult to contend with shortcomings in Welsh forward play.
"With a strong base to work from Iestyn can be all that we want him to be," Nicholas said. "But if he's left to feed off scraps, which is what I fear, Wales won't get the best out of him. It's also important that he's adopted as a role model."
It is worthy of note that the deal Harris concluded is worth £250,000 annually. If things work out, the tainted business of rugby union could even give way to sport.Reuse content