MIKE Harris knows a thing or two about taking opportunities and, after Scotland ruined a long-awaited international debut in June, the Australian centre can hardly wait for tonight’s kick-off at Murrayfield.
It is one of several motivation factors driving this Wallaby side. The 25-year-old was also one of the renegade XV who went out on the town in Dublin last week, but was in the bottom group of players disciplined, in that he received only a verbal warning while others were given written warnings or suspensions. He was naturally reluctant to go into details this week, preferring to keep the whys of that differentiation within the squad, but he knows his place in the No 12 jersey at Murrayfield tonight owes everything to the ban of others and is keen not to let the chance slip.
“The whole thing is based around individuals making better decisions as rugby players,” he said, of the learning experience of the past week. “We’ve got a good culture now, but we want it to be a great culture. We understand that very clearly. We move on. It’s been hard, but I know Ewen [coach McKenzie] pretty well, and I owe him a lot. He’s very driven to get good results and build the best team he can.”
Scots often think that it is only here that players use grandparent connections to find a path to Test rugby, but Harris was born and bred in Auckland, and did his damndest to become an All Black. But, despite three promising seasons with North Harbour and pushing into the Blues squad, without ever getting a Super Rugby spot, in 2010 McKenzie came calling with the offer of a Queensland Reds contract. Though purely a provincial coach, McKenzie knew of his Australian grandmother and used the added lure of a path to Test rugby and Harris admitted: “That move was the best decision I ever made.”
He is far from alone in making the hop across the Tasman Sea. He lines up tonight between fellow Aucklanders in Quade Cooper and Christian Leali’ifano with winger Joe Tomane, who also made his Wallaby debut against Scotland in June, from Palmerston North and prop Sekope Kepu, like James O’Connor, born in Australia but having spent his childhood in Auckland.
Cooper Vuna, Hiua Edmonds, Dean Mumm, Pek Cowan and Digby Ioane are other Kiwis who have debuted for Australia in recent years, while scrum-half Will Genia hails from Papua New Guinea.
But back to June and Newcastle, and Harris grimaces. He was one of five uncapped players in the Australia line-up chosen to play Scotland four days before a stronger side kicked off its summer series with Wales.
“It was a good memory,” he said, not entirely convincingly. “I don’t look back on it as a horrible memory, more a learning experience. To debut in those conditions is always going to be memorable for different reasons. Singing the anthem for the first time was something, although I stood in the line not being able to see, because the rain was hitting me in the side of the face so hard, so there are different feelings from that day. It was disappointing to lose but I still have special memories about the occasion.
“When you walk out on the field and you’re getting hit sideways with rain, it’s almost like that scene in the Forrest Gump movie, when the rain is actually flying upwards. I looked at the goal posts and they were bending two to three metres with the wind. So we knew we were in for a hard day.
“I think it definitely evened the playing field, a day like that. It’s pretty tough ball handling and territory becomes a massive thing – you definitely don’t want to be in your own half.
“Even kicking the ball from hand was difficult. Just dropping the ball on to your foot, it could go any which way even in such a short distance, and I kicked a ball up on my 22 thinking it would land around the halfway and it went dead. So there is no easy way to play in those conditions. I would go so far as saying it’s as different from rugby in good conditions as going from XVs to sevens.”
He is respectful of the Scots, and how they coped with the conditions, but there is a strong hint that Harris and his Wallaby team-mates believe that they were ‘pulled down to Scotland’s level’, if they are not quite saying that. He is in a stronger side this weekend, and the former fly-half has a good relationship with his fellow Kiwi, Cooper, as they play together at the Reds.
“There is definitely something to put right here. It was so disappointing to lose on my debut and I still remember those feelings, so, for me, there is definitely a feeling of wanting to go out there and prove that we can win, and that we can play good rugby. I was massively determined to play Scotland on this tour. I want to get one back, so to speak, and this game is hopefully an opportunity for me to do that.”