WHEN Rob Harley’s 6ft 6in and 17st frame filled the doorway of the press room at Scotstoun Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, he was – inevitably – bang on time. Clockwork punctuality seems typical of a man who was often described as a machine by former Glasgow Warriors coach Sean Lineen.
Square shoulders, straight back and hands at his side, there is a robotic quality to the 23-year-old’s off-field mannerisms which is entirely in keeping with his on-field persona as a relentless, reliable and (when the need arises) ruthless back-five forward.
He will never be the most glamorous member of any side he plays in, but his work-rate and all-round toughness ensures that none of the coaching staff or fellow players at the Warriors is in any doubt as to his importance to the team.
As forwards coach Shade Munro says: “His qualities are: work-rate, aggression, ability to do the good things over and over again. At the breakdown he is very, very aggressive and he gives us a line-out option as well. His ball carrying is coming on but he tends to be one of these players who goes to tackles and goes to breakdowns rather than carry ball. Having said that, he does it so many times and so effectively you would not want him to do anything else. He is hugely valuable to the team.”
Head coach Gregor Townsend has used 36 players during the last eight weeks in order to keep his squad fresh during a brutal run of matches leading into the climax of the season – but he has never been tempted to give Harley a week off. In fact, he is the only member of the Warriors squad to have featured in every league game this year – with an astonishing 19 starts and just three appearances off the bench.
This would be an impressive achievement for any player, but is especially so given the attritional nature of the positions Harley plays and the ferocity with which he approaches his role as one of the team’s key enforcers.
He might not be soft and cuddly, but Harley is like a Duracell bunny in that he just keeps going, and going, and going.
“I am pleased when the team is announced and I am involved. The depth in the squad is such you are not going to get a start in every game so there will be changes but it is good to be involved in the squad,” he says, with deadpan sincerity when asked about his impressive appearance record this season.
Harley is a highly intelligent individual. He was all set to pursue a career in law before deferring his degree so that he could concentrate on rugby. He is well read – in English and in French – has a lively off-beat sense of humour, and is something of an oracle within the Warriors squad when it comes to interesting trivia. But once he crosses the whitewash on game day, life is clearly about doing the simple things well.
Given that he can play across the back-row and the middle-row, it would be unfair to call him a one dimensional player – but it is telling that he doesn’t profess to viewing his role as changing much in relation to the number he has on his back.
“In a few scrum or line-out moves we have a different responsibility for first or second phase, but apart from that we are trying to play the same way. Leone Nakarawa and Tim Swinson have both played in the second row and back-row and I’m sure they would say the same thing. You don’t try and change your game, you try and play as well as you can,” he states.
His observations on how the Warriors managed to defeat Munster five weeks ago (and about what will be required to overcome the same opposition in tomorrow night’s play-off semi-final at Scotstoun) provides another illuminating insight into Harley’s rugby philosophy.
While he values the importance of attacking well, it is the heroism of the team in defence that really pleased him.
“We played really well in that game. We showed really good patience in attack and we were willing to play through the phases until we got tries. Defence was excellent as well. There were times we were on their five metre line and it was all hands on deck,” he recalls.
“There was one particular moment when the number eight was reaching out and Chris Cusiter dived in and knocked the ball away. It was courageous defence. It is massive for us to have that under our belts.
“At the same time, I remember playing them here earlier in the season and how Munster were so physical. While we can take confidence of winning over there, they will be thinking of the same about winning here,” he added.
“We have to remember how dangerous they are and the threat that they pose. There is no doubt that we need to really step up for this game.”
It is this sort of pragmatism which will have worked in Harley’s favour when the coaching team considered their options [Josh Strauss, Chris Fusaro, Ryan Wilson, Leone Nakarawa, Tyrone Holmes and James Eddie are also vying for selection in the back-row] ahead of today’s team announcement.
The bookies have Glasgow as marginal favourites for the Munster clash, but the thrilling nature of the team’s recent performances means that there is an unprecedented level of optimism as they approach their fourth play-off in five years.
Rather than play down this factor, Harley has embraced it as a means of reinforcing his determination to get the job done.
“I think it is exciting. Playing in the previous semi-finals there was a step up in intensity from the regular season, so we know it is going to be all about the small details,” he says.
“The small mistakes will get punished and everything is heightened a little bit.
“The fact we are in front of our home fans gives us that little extra to push us over the top and to victory.”