Kiwi brothers rooted in Welsh legend

Family Game: Tom and Sam Harding are the epitome of New Zealand flankers - with links to a Celtic great
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The Independent Online

In New Zealand back row forwards are two a dollar. No other country produces such a quantity of quality breakaways and those surplus to requirements - with players like Richie McCaw and Marty Holah ruling the roost there are plenty - are exported to a worldwide market. If they have "made in New Zealand" stamped on their forehead they are welcome from Adelaide to Zagreb.

When Northampton were looking for a flanker this season they whistled up Sam Harding, who had been playing for Canterbury. Worcester, in a similar predicament, recruited Sam's brother Tom and the two, who have never played against each other, could go head to head when the clubs meet in the Premiership at Sixways on 7 January.

Although the Hardings are New Zealand born and bred, some Welsh blood is pumping through the family tree and it is no ordinary blood. Their great uncle was Rowe Harding, an influential figure when he captained Wales and Cambridge University in the 1920s.

"I have heard a lot of stories and he was obviously a very interesting man," Sam, who made one appearance for the All Blacks against Fiji in 2002, said. "We'll learn a lot more when we meet up with family members. There's a lot of history to catch up on."

Judge Rowe Harding (he became a county court judge) was at the forefront of the development of rugby in Wales. His father Albert, a colliery manager in the Swansea valley, organised the workforce into a team in 1896. Rowe went to Gowerton Grammar and Cambridge and made a considerable name for himself, not only as a leader but also as a dashing wing for Swansea, Wales and the Lions.

He was at Cambridge between 1924 and 1928, the first of the grammar school Blues of the inter-war years and is described in Fields Of Praise, the history of the Welsh Rugby Union, as "one of the most stylish and effective wings". Outspoken too. After Wales had lost a roughhouse match to England at Swansea in 1926, Rowe, captain that day, noted: "The difference between rough rugby in England and rough rugby in Wales is largely a matter of accent."

He won 17 caps between 1923 and 1928. In 1924, the year Wales lost 19-0 to New Zealand at Swansea, he toured South Africa with the Lions. Although the Test series was memorable, the game in Britain was at a low ebb and it was an ill-fated tour. Harding, one of the first players to recall his career in a book, wrote: "Many unkind things were said about our wining and dining but that was not the explanation of our failures. Dissipation had nothing to do with it. The real reason for our failure was that we were not good enough to go abroad as representatives of the playing strength of these islands."

He lamented Wales' lack of power. "The Welsh pack once scrummaged against six Cardiff policemen and failed to get the ball once in six put-ins." And he lambasted the authorities for not taking tours seriously. "There has always been too much condescension about our attitudes, both to our continental neighbours and to the colonies."

The "colonies", of course, would bite back, not least in the latest Lions series in New Zealand, where Rowe Harding's descendants were spectators at the feast. Sam and Tom are from Christchurch where their father Leo is a solicitor. Leo, who also went to Cambridge, played stand-off for Swansea. He emigrated to Western Australia before marrying a doctor and settling in New Zealand.

Sam, at 25 two years Tom's senior, was at Jade Stadium in Christchurch last June when the Lions lost the First Test 21-3. "Under the conditions that's the best performance I've ever seen," he said. "I also enjoyed watching the All Blacks win the Grand Slam over here. The main difference is that we spend a lot more time in New Zealand practising skills. The accent is more on beating opponents rather than running into them.

"There's a lot more mauling and focus on set play. It's just a different style but basically rugby is rugby the world over. The training is not too much of a shock. I had a plan to play in England and I heard some good things about Northampton." From the Saints' New Zealanders, Bruce Reihana, Mark Robinson and Carlos Spencer. "I live opposite the ground in what's called Kiwi Corner so I can walk to work," said Sam, who scored a try on his Northampton debut. "The Saints have the right infrastructure and we've worked out what we need to do to be more successful. One thing I'm learning is this emphasis on home and away."

Tom, who joined Worcester a couple of weeks ago from North Harbour, was in Britain three years ago when he helped New Zealand win the Under-21 World Cup. "Sam and I are different players. He's more of a ball runner whereas I work more on the ground and as a link man." Both played for Otago University, where they studied politics, philosophy and economics. Sam has a two-year contract at Northampton, Tom 18 months at Worcester.

Since leaving New Zealand they met up for the first time last week. "We caught up with a New Zealand band in Hammersmith called Fat Freddie's Drop and it was great to compare notes," Sam said. "There isn't much time for socialising but we're hoping for the odd family reunion."

Roger Harding, Leo's brother and a nephew of Rowe, lives in Rhossili on the Gower peninsula. It is next door to the village of Ilston where Rowe, who was born in September 1901 and died in February 1991, is buried. Roger also played for Swansea. "At the time some unkind people said I only got in because Judge Rowe was chairman of the committee. Leo and I are both 5ft 4in and Sam and Tom are huge, strapping lads so I don't know where they get it from. What I do know is that somewhere along the line the rugby genes have been handed down."

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