THERE was a time when film stars who wished to make an impact bought themselves a Harley.
Think James Dean, Stallone, Presley, Hopper or Mickey Rourke. And then there is Scott Johnson. He has picked his own Harley this week with a similar intention – to make his opponents sit up and take note, and wish that they had one of their own.
Robert Harley is still a novice in international rugby, the 22-year-old coming off the bench against Samoa last summer and making an instant impact by scoring the try that pulled victory from the molten lava of a baking South Seas defeat. He had been banging so hard at the door to selection this season that some were disappointed when he was not selected to face England at Twickenham, despite the fact that Kelly Brown, Johnnie Beattie and Alasdair Strokosch have some distance on him in terms of experience and nous.
Now, however, with injury to Ali Strokosch he has been handed his chance, and the comparison with the classic motorcycles is not confined to the surname. Like them, he stands outbut, more importantly, he has an engine that is the envy of his team-mates, allowing him to finish games in which he has been a constant presence stronger than he started it.
He also leaves his mark. Asked how much he enjoyed scoring on his Test debut, he said it was fantastic, but when then asked if that was what he was most looking forward to reprising against Italy in his first Murrayfield appearance on Saturday he said ‘no’. It was the sense of hitting hard Italian flesh and knocking it back that brought a smile to his square chops.
“The player I loved watching when I was growing up was Jason White,” he said, “especially his tackles.
“He would just go out and smash people in the tackle and for me that’s still the best feeling in rugby. As great as it is to score a try I think, as Jason White used to do, if you really smash someone then that is the perfect feeling.
“Scoring the winning try is obviously more important for a match but if you turn it around and we were one point in the lead in the last minute and they were coming at our line, for me, in terms of rugby, would I rather score five tries in the match or have five tackles when I have smashed someone and knocked them down and the ball out? It is probably the tackles, the defensive side.”
Harley laughed as he was asked to expand on that, insisting “you’re making me sound vicious”, but went on to admit that when he played football and water polo as a kid he was a centre-half or defender, and liked the more physical aspects of those sports, too.
“I guess it’s something in my mentality. I have always enjoyed the physical side of rugby and the contact. That is what it is all about, coming in and being as physical as you can. If you play mini-rugby you just want to run about and... well, hopefully, smash a few people, so it’s probably been that way for me all the time.”
Harley is an intriguing character, a thoughtful speaker who captivates you when he talks. His coaches and team-mates talk of an almost robotic approach to his profession, where his training continually improves, his effectiveness in key areas of the game only become more consistent and nothing is ever too much trouble.
If Johnson and his assistant coaches, Dean Ryan and Steve Scott, could ask for just one player to bolster their efforts after the Twickenham disappointment, it is difficult to imagine a more perfect candidate.
Scotland’s problems started from an ability to batter into the tackle situations and force Englishmen off the ball. The Scots were slow by comparison to English players and lacked the same punch at the breakdown, so their attack was slowed down and their defensive line pushed back.
Harley is young and he admitted that the pace of the Test match in Samoa had been a real eye-opener, so he will need more than just this game to find his feet. But he has those qualities, the strength and power in the tackle allied to a grasp of technical requirements, but also a deep desire to knock people back; not only an ambivalence to hurting people in the name of sport but an enthusiasm for it.
He has been near the edge on occasions, taking out his Edinburgh rival David Denton off the ball in a recent inter-city match, and escaping with a warning – but he left his mark. Now stepping past Denton into the No 6 jersey, he is eager to do the same at the next level up and ensure Scotland play on their terms, and attack Italy.
“Hopefully, I can make a difference there,” he said. “That’s a big goal for me, to try and get quick ball for us.
“Italy showed that if you can get quick ball you can beat any team.
“They beat France by beating them at the contact and then getting quick ball to attack with so the lesson from our game against England and that game is that if you can get in there first at the breakdown and get quicker ball it makes attack much easier, and in defence where if you get in first and slow their ball then attacking’s harder, your line is set and you can get up on them.
“Coming on against Samoa was incredible, the best moment of my career so far. It was a faster pace than I’d ever played before and I guess this weekend will be more physical and faster, so I’ll have to try and adapt to the pace first and foremost, and get to that level pretty quickly.
“But I am looking forward to it. I felt elation this week [to be told he would start against Italy]. When I was growing up at West of Scotland you see yourself running out at Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, and it’s a huge moment and I’ll try to use the experience that I’ve had of coming on to not be overwhelmed by the occasion; use the emotion but keep it under control.”
We will almost inevitably expect more than is reasonable of the latest young talent to emerge in the Scottish game, but anyone who has watched his development from West of Scotland and through the ranks at Glasgow cannot fail to have been impressed by the diligent youngster.
He spoke in our interview about the influence of his father David, as a mentor and coach, of West of Scotland minis coach Carl Davis, Campbell Muir at Douglas Academy and John Beattie, his senior coach at West of Scotland, as men who shared an innovative approach to coaching. It is a small point, but it further underlines the value of good coaches to producing Scotland players..
There is no ‘Easy Rider’ relevance to the trajectory of this particular Harley, but the way in which he has grasped and learned from the guidance, care and investment of passion in him makes the timing of his introduction to Murrayfield well judged.
It is difficult to escape the notion that Scottish rugby could do with its own ‘Hell’s Angel’ tearing up the Murrayfield park and into some highly-charged Italians this weekend to begin the process of turning around the nation’s fortunes.