Why Chris Harris' Lions Test chances may depend on Warren Gatland’s judgment of Owen Farrell

Some sportsmen are like a frisky white wine best drunk young, others like a slow-maturing claret. One may be inclined to say of those in the first group that they didn’t fulfil their promise, but this might be as unfair as to chide the second sort for not being of Test match standard when they were 21. One should judge players by what they do in their best years.

Craig Chalmers was outstanding in his early years in a Scotland jersey, playing a key role in the 1990 Grand Slam.
Craig Chalmers was outstanding in his early years in a Scotland jersey, playing a key role in the 1990 Grand Slam.

Craig Chalmers, for instance, was only 20 when first capped against Wales in 1989. He toured Australia with the Lions that summer, played a key role in Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam, and in 1993 was favourite to be that summer’s first-choice Lions fly-half. But he broke his arm at Twickenham and missed that tour. As the game became more physical and professionalism loomed, he bulked up, and was never quite the same player again. He had never been lightning-fast, but he was an elusive and intelligent runner. Now he lost a bit of speed. It wouldn’t be unfair to say he had played his best rugby before he was 26 or 27. He was still in or around the Scotland team till he was 31, but those who watched him in his later years probably didn’t realise just how good he had been from 1989 to 1995.

Compare him with Chris Harris today. He was born in December 1990 and was first capped in November 2017. Few Scottish supporters knew much about him and few were greatly impressed by his first Six Nations performance against Wales in Cardiff in 2018. It was a bad day for Scotland and for him too. Many of us failed to see what Gregor Townsend saw in him and continued to be doubters throughout the 2019 World Cup in Japan. But Townsend persisted with him. Harris’s skill in reading the play and defensive ability in the key outside centre position were then recognised.

He played an essential role in Scotland’s transformation from a side that leaked tries to one with a secure defence, the meanest in the last two Six Nations campaigns. We saw too that there was more to his attacking ability than we had supposed, and fewer came to doubt Townsend’s preference for Harris rather than the more dashing Huw Jones in the 13 jersey. Even so many, even in Scotland and certainly beyond, were surprised by his selection for the Lions this summer. However his performances in the first matches in South Africa have made it quite likely that he may start at 13 in the Tests. He is a classic example of the late developer, a full-bodied Claret rather than a frisky Vouvray.

Owen Farrell's form has dipped in the last 18 months. Picture: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images

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Whether he gets the nod from Warren Gatland may depend on Gatland’s judgment of Owen Farrell’s present form. Farrell, though a year younger than Harris, is vastly more experienced in international rugby. He was first picked for England in 2012, five years before Harris played his first international. He now has 93 England caps and has played four Tests for the Lions, including all three against New Zealand in 2017. It will be hard to leave him out, but his form has dipped in the last 18 months. There are many in England who reckon he has been picked recently on reputation and his unquestioned reliability as a goal-kicker rather than on performance. It is certainly possible that, like Craig Chalmers in the second half of his career, his best years are now behind him.

If Gatland is loyal to him, then, with Finn Russell injured and Dan Biggar doubtfully fit, then Farrell may play at 10 in the first Test next week. In that case Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw would probably be at 12 with Harris at 13. Alternatively, if Biggar plays, then Farrell might again be at 12 with Henshaw at 13. But if Gatland goes by form, the midfield line-up will be Biggar, Henshaw and Harris. One would guess that Gregor will make the case for Harris.

Incidentally, Townsend’s own Test career ended, perhaps prematurely, when he was the same age as Farrell is now. Even if that ending at the hands of a then new Scotland coach, the Australian Matt Williams, was indeed premature, one might argue that he had been at his peak from 1997-99 when he played for the Lions in South Africa and masterminded Scotland’s winning of the last Five Nations championship.

Chris Harris' performances in South Africa have made him contender to start at 13 in the Tests. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

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