Henry calls up Harris amid Welsh 'hysteria'

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The Independent Online

The first bit was not terribly difficult: Graham Henry, as sensitive to public opinion as he is responsive to natural – or, in this case, unnatural – rugby-playing ability, must have hesitated for all of five seconds before naming Iestyn Harris in his 31-man squad for the autumn internationals with Argentina, Tonga and Australia. Harris has played precisely two hours of top-flight union, but those two hours were more than enough to convince the coach of his value.

There are, however, rather more complicated decisions still to be made. Where should Harris play? And when? Should a born outside-half spend 80 minutes of Test rugby at inside centre, by way of finding his bearings? Or should he be handed the most mythically charged jersey in the game, the Wales No 10 shirt, and told to strut his stuff? Henry needs to tread carefully. He has a rare diamond in his hands here, and if he undermines Harris in the way he wrecked Arwel Thomas a year ago, the good folk of the Principality will string him up by his unmentionables.

A £1.5m recruit from rugby league – the Welsh Rugby Union and Cardiff RFC, bitter enemies as recently as 1999, co-funded the venture – Harris may well be the most potent red-shirted stand-off since Jonathan Davies. Interestingly, it was Davies himself who suggested the newcomer might usefully begin his Test career at 12 rather than 10. But he expressed that view before the 25-year-old import turned in his record-breaking performance for Cardiff against Glasgow in last Saturday's Heineken Cup match at the Arms Park: a 31-point, three-try virtuoso effort described by Barry John, no less, as "out of this world".

Henry, a conservative by instinct, had planned to run Llanelli's Stephen Jones at outside-half against Argentina on Saturday week and may still do so. But he is now under all manner of pressure to give Harris his head and play Jones at inside centre, where the coach believes the latter will develop into a world-class act. Henry was suitably cagey yesterday, but he tacitly acknowledged that rampant public opinion is setting the agenda.

"Everyone has to be sensible, but there is nothing I can do to quell all this hysteria surrounding Iestyn," he said. "I'm sure he can handle it, though. He has captained Wales and his club at the very highest levels of rugby league; he has been through the mill, and that is an advantage for him. It was always our intention to fast-track him, and he would have been involved in this squad no matter what. But the fact he has adapted so quickly to a new game is a huge plus for us."

Harris is bracketed with Jones and the 19-year-old Swansea stand-off Gavin Henson, whose own career as the "new Barry" or the "new Jonathan" now looks to have stalled without ever shifting out of first gear. Three influential players – the Bridgend threequarter Gareth Thomas, the Newport lock Ian Gough and the Llanelli No 8 Scott Quinnell – return after missing the farcical collapse against Ireland earlier this month, and there is serious competition for places at wing, where Anthony Sullivan follows his fellow code-breaker Harris into the squad, and at loose forward, where Henry must decide how much longer he can afford to wait for Colin Charvis to emerge from his post-Lions depression.

If anyone's depression is justified, it is Conor O'Shea's. The London Irish captain has announced his retirement at the age of 31 after failing to recover from a serious ankle injury suffered during a Premiership match at Gloucester 11 months ago. "It is disappointing to finish my career like this, but I have had a highly enjoyable 10 seasons playing at the highest level," said the full-back, who won 35 caps for Ireland between 1993 and February of last year.

Still on the international front, the Scotland captain Budge Pountney will miss his country's three-match programme of autumn internationals because of a heavily bruised shoulder. Pountney, who also captains Northampton, picked up the injury at Sale earlier this month and has not responded to treatment as quickly as expected. "His shoulder remains very swollen and he has been advised by the medics to let the injury settle," said Ian McGeechan, the Scotland coach. "This is obviously a blow to us."

Meanwhile, the Italians have named three Zurich Premiership players – the Gloucester utility back Cristian Stoica, the Northampton threequarter Luca Martin and the Sale lock Mark Giacheri – in their squad for the international with Fiji in Treviso in 10 days' time. Diego Dominguez, the biggest name in Azzurri rugby, is also on board having re-considered his retirement plans, and there are eight players from the Treviso club, including the gifted loose forwards Mauro Bergamasco and Carlo Checchinato.

WALES SQUAD (for Tests v Argentina, Tonga and Australia, 10 and 25 Nov): Backs: K Morgan (Swansea), R Williams (Cardiff), G Thomas (Bridgend), A Bateman (Neath), J Robinson (Cardiff), L Davies (Llanelli), S Williams (Neath), A Sullivan (Cardiff), S Jones (Llanelli), G Henson (Swansea), I Harris (Cardiff), R Howley (Cardiff), D Peel (Llanelli), G Cooper (Bath). Forwards: I Thomas (Ebbw Vale), C Anthony (Newport), D Morris (Swansea), D Young (Cardiff), R McBryde (Llanelli), B Williams (Neath), A Lewis (Cardiff), I Gough (Newport), A Moore (Swansea), C Wyatt (Llanelli), C Quinnell (Cardiff), C Charvis (Swansea), G Thomas (Bath), B Sinkinson (Neath), G Lewis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Llanelli), N Budgett (Bridgend).