If you live in the south of Scotland you might want to hop in your car and head for Newcastle’s Kingston Park this afternoon where you will catch an early sighting of not one but both of Scotland’s surprise picks for the autumn internationals.
Falcons’ centre Chris Harris lines up against the Tigers’ bruising breakaway Luke Hamilton in an Aviva Premiership fixture that pits fourth versus sixth… and oddly enough it is the home team that occupy the play-off position.
Hamilton has a Scottish father but came through the Welsh system, turning out for the Blues before heading to France to play for Agen where he was the Top 14’s top tackler in 2015-16.
Harris is a Cumbrian boy, with a Dumfries granny, who moved to Newcastle aged 18 to study but he kept playing for his home team who looked after him a bit, bunging him petrol money and the like. He is 27 in December but retains his Cumbrian accent and couldn’t be prouder to be selected for Scotland.
“I am absolutely buzzing,” says the leggy centre. “It’s a real achievement. I am really, really happy. I was all for it, there was no second guessing, as soon as I heard they were interested that was my goal.
“Obviously every player wants to play at the highest level and this was an opportunity I just wanted to grasp.
“Gregor [Townsend] just called me out the blue. I didn’t have his number saved but I answered and he said, ‘hullo, hi, it’s Gregor Townsend’. He said he wanted to get me involved and that made my decision really easy. I was just like, ‘yeah, I am really keen for this opportunity.’
“He called me a week ago just to say that I was in contention and then he called me last Monday when I was at home to confirm I was in the squad. Fantastic! It brightened up my day a bit.”
For a speedster who can play 12, 13 or 14, Harris was a little slow out the blocks when it came to playing Premiership rugby.
While affiliated with the Falcons, the big back played one season with Tynedale and another with Rotherham Titans while studying for a degree in architectural technology. He eventually achieved a 2:1 and its nice to see that Newcastle players can still juggle the demands of a degree and life in the Falcons’ academy because he probably couldn’t have done so in Scotland.
Harris didn’t make his Premiership bow until 27 December 2014, one day ahead of his 24th birthday, but his debut was worth waiting for. A brace of tries against Saracens just failed to win the match but it teed up his Premiership career nicely. The big back has since made 41 league appearances for the Falcons, including every minute of every league match this season, scoring nine tries along the way.
“More boys than you think have done this kind if thing, three guys at this club have gone to university and then signed up,” says the graduate. “I think some boys are just late bloomers, or they haven’t had the opportunity to develop from a young age or they went to university.
“To be honest I am happy to do it that way. The degree is there to fall back on. I haven’t looked at it much recently but it is something I would like to pick up again.”
Harris is versatile, at 6’ 2” he is big, and he has raw speed even if he takes a little time to get into his running. Despite his relative bulk – he tips the scales at 16½ stones – Harris prefers to play 13 but both Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones are comfortable running the inside channel so he may yet get his wish.
But before he makes his case for inclusion in the match day squad to play Samoa, Harris must help the Falcons find a way past the Tigers, which isn’t as unlikely as you may imagine.
If Harris was the surprise package of the Scotland squad, the Falcons have been the revelation in the Aviva Premiership this season. Fourth in the table is nose-bleed territory for a team that is used to life at the other end and Scotland’s new recruit explains why.
“We have kept hold of a lot of boys and we have brought in plenty of quality and I think that is what is driving success,” says the centre. “There is plenty of competition, like in training, it’s really intense, there are no days when you can be off the mark, you have to be on it. So I think that is what is driving success, everyone is real keen and helping each other.
“It is nice to be in that position, morale is really high and everyone is expecting to win and pushing for victories every week. I know its a cliché but winning is a habit and we are getting used to it now. We know how to keep ourselves in a game now.”
And after 80 minutes of knocking the stuffing out of each other, Harris and Hamilton will catch the same train up to Edinburgh and perhaps swap stories of long-lost Scottish relatives.
“I’ve played against him but I’ve not properly met him as such,” says Harris. “We are travelling up together to Edinburgh so we’ll have plenty of time to chat and catch up and get to know each other.”
It could be, to borrow from Casablanca, the start of a beautiful friendship.