European exploits thrill late bloomer Harris
Desire and drive key for Scotland international and his Newcastle team, writes Mick Cleary
Newcastle Falcons centre Chris Harris has the perfect background as an architecture graduate to appreciate the worth of laying proper foundations and constructing a bright future.
As a late developer, taking rugby seriously only midway through his studies at Northumbria University, gaining a contract with the Falcons and going on to win the first of his six Scotland caps last year, Harris is well aware, too, of the importance of taking opportunities and maximising the moment.
As with the 27-year-old, so too with the Falcons, the surprise package of this year’s Heineken Champions Cup, already conquerors of Toulon and Montpellier and heading to Edinburgh tonight in the same sort of buccaneering mood. Newcastle may be propping up the Premiership, but their confidence is high and appetite whetted for a European adventure.
“We had nothing to lose in Europe,” said Harris, part of the Falcons team who qualified for the elite competition for the first time in 14 years by dint of their fourthplaced finish in the Premiership. “Everyone said we were in a tough group, but for us it was exciting. We had worked so hard to get there that we were determined to make the most of it. There was no pressure on us, only the desire within to show what we were about. We’re going up to Murrayfield to give it a real crack and see where that takes us.”
Harris’s pathway is unusual in the modern era, in which so many youngsters are hot-housed in academies and sent out along a well-signed road to professional rugby. The Carlisle-born Harris, who qualifies for Scotland through an Edinburgh grandmother, had no aspirations to make a career from the sport and even gave up playing university rugby as he bumped around the college third and fourth XVS. Harris concentrated on his studies and turned out for local club Tynedale.
Eventually, word got out and Falcons scouts came looking. He was offered a trial and terms. He completed his four-year degree, then turned his mind fully to his unheralded sporting profession. But the dream is to help Falcons prosper and to build on his fledgling international career.
“Getting picked for Scotland has done Chris a power of good,” said Newcastle head coach Dave Walder. “It has helped make him realise what he was capable of. He has come out of his shell. He used to have a nice, light-hearted approach to it all. He now realises what it takes to get to the next level and is pushing to get there.”
Harris, comfortable playing wing as well as centre, is relishing a return to Murrayfield, even if the stands will be less populated than when he featured in two of Scotland’s matches there recently.
“Murrayfield is a brilliant stadium with a fantastic surface and the boys are looking forward to the experience,” said Harris. “There’s a lot of desire and drive in this Falcons team. For us, it’s about putting all that out there and using the belief we’ve drawn from winning in Toulon and then getting past Montpellier.” That lung-busting effort, Newcastle edging the game at the death after a never-say-die effort that went through 39 phases, before Callum Chick’s try clinched a 23-20 victory over the former French champions, has impacted on the squad.
“Winning tough stays with you,” said Harris. “We know we can come through no matter what.”
This back-to-back round of fixtures will reveal Falcons’ true worth, all the more so in that they have a spate of injuries, including a crisis at tighthead prop.
Newcastle’s short bus ride to Edinburgh is a reward for perseverance to get to this elevated point, the value of which Harris knows better than most.
Fired up: Chris Harris is flying high for Falcons