'The Plank' tells Healey rift can end with a pint

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The Independent Online

The Wallabies Rugby Union party has landed – after a scare or two on the way – and among their number is Justin Harrison, the man labelled variously "Plank", "Plod" and "Ape" in Austin Healey's infamous newspaper column during the Lions tour last summer.

Harrison and his colleagues were relieved just to set foot on terra firma again after a flight which had taken them far too close to Afghanistan air space for comfort and was rounded off five minutes from Heathrow by their plane being struck by lightning.

"We felt something," said Wallabies spokesman Djuro Sen, "and the lights flickered on and off. It was a hairy moment, but I never thought it was terrorists, although to judge by the expression on a few of the players' faces they certainly thought it was something a lot worse than lightning."

Having survived that little ordeal the genial Harrison finally spoke for the first time about l'affaire Healey. When the column first appeared Harrison had maintained a dignified silence, merely letting his performance on his debut for his country, do the talking.

He did not even have an opportunity to say anything to the author of the insults. "Mate, I did not get a chance to say anything to Austin, I was too tired."

But yesterday, speaking for the first time on the subject, he proved most eloquent. "I've certainly been called a lot worse, it didn't worry me at all. My own team-mates do give me a little bit of stick here and there, but that is all part of the camaraderie.

"'Ape' and 'Plod' and things like that certainly get brought up, and bananas mysteriously appear outside my door. But the overall effect of what Healey wrote was, as the saying goes, water off a duck's back. I was never upset about it.

"If you let things like that get to you then you are going to be beaten a long time before you lace up your boots. I tried to remain as positive as possible and I guess you can take things like that as a compliment."

Indeed the 6ft 8in Harrison seems determined to meet up with Healey, who is a full foot shorter. "There are no hard feelings. I will be quite happy to have a beer with him, that is no problem at all," said Harrison. "In fact Rod Kafer, an ACT Brumbies team-mate of mine, is now playing alongside Austin at Leicester, so hopefully we will catch up with each other and have a coffee or a pint."

This seven-match tour begins against an English National Divisions Select XV at Leicester next Sunday, thus presenting Harrison with an early opportunity to get together with Healey, a player he clearly admires.

"If I do get the chance to play against Austin it will be good competition," said Harrison. "But I will not be throwing my scrum cap at him as I did after the ACT Brumbies played the Lions.

"He is a fine athlete, he has a fantastic reputation in international rugby and he is as competitive as the next guy and I guess he wanted to try to get an edge on that occasion."

What with Australian coach Eddie Jones promising positive rugby throughout the tour -- whatever happens they will want to avenge last autumn's defeat by England -- and Harrison declaring that there are no newspaper columnists among the touring party, it may well turn out to be rugby that captures the hearts of the public and the headlines.

But Harrison would like something more. "It would be fantastic if, at the end of this tour, I was known as a world-class second row rather than the man Austin Healey slagged off in his column." Amen to that.

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