Chris Harris sputters into view on the screen sporting what might best be described as a divot in his forehead, as though Bryson DeChambeau had taken his lob wedge and had a right good hack at the Gloucester centre’s bonce.
Half-a-dozen stitches lace the skin above Harris’ left eye together. Mark Atkinson, the Scotland cap’s team-mate, is to blame for the wound. Harris insists he will be fighting fit for Gloucester’s trip to Worcester this Saturday, their first game since rugby’s suspension in what seems like another age, but he is less sure about the state of his pal.
“Mark got a bit hungry and decided to take a bite out of my forehead,” Harris chuckled. “It was just a head-on-head collision during 15 VS 15 in training. I think he came off worse, actually.”
With Harris, brutality is as good a place to start as any. Gregor Townsend, the Scotland coach, loves him for his intelligence and belligerence, his savvy in defence and his ballast in midfield. These are not glamorous traits to the rugby layman, but they are immensely prized by those in the game.
It is not that Harris can’t puncture a line and throw a gorgeous pass – just that he isn’t renowned for the razzle-dazzle like Huw Jones or Rory Hutchinson. Yet he has consistently kept both out of the Scotland centre berths for over a year.
Harris went to the World Cup in Japan while the two maestros watched at home. He then fought off a fit-again Jones to win back his place in the latter half of the interrupted Six Nations, impressing in wins over Italy and France.
He yearned for a crack at the Welsh in Scotland’s final fixture before Covid-19 applied the buffers. Cardiff, of course, was the site of Harris’ first Test start. It should have been a joyous occasion; instead, he still bristles at the memory two years on. His was a grim individual experience amid a collectively miserable display. Scotland were shellacked 34-7.
“That one game has stuck by me and it’s always been there to haunt me. Every interview I do it gets brought up,” Harris told RugbyPass. “I had a poor game, let’s be honest. I just let the moment get to me. I played the occasion as opposed to playing the game.
“I would have loved to have played that recent Wales game for Scotland, a bit of a redemption day, you know? It’s always going to come up.”
In his earliest moments as a Test player, the barbs would get to him. Harris pays no heed to Twitter now – he scarcely bothers opening the app – but for a while, he let the faceless armchair critics beat him down.
A typical Townsend curve-ball, Harris was motoring along nicely at Newcastle Falcons anonymous to all but the biggest anoraks among Scotland fans, eligible through a grandmother, when he was called up in the autumn of 2017.
“If you don’t have the perfect first couple of games… I don’t play in Scotland; no-one really knew who I was, a bit of a slow-burner,” Harris said.
“I’ve got to thank the coaching set-up at Scotland who have stood by me and given me more than one opportunity. That’s what I’m most thankful for. They could have easily just listened to media and binned me off and that could have been it. But the fact that they have stuck by me and given me more opportunities, I am grateful for that. And I think the way that I’ve been playing recently has proven them right.
“I’ve got 18 caps and you wouldn’t have 18 caps if you didn’t have the backing of more than one person. You’ve just got to take the confidence into –hopefully – future games to come. I don’t need the plaudits in the press or social media. It’s nice, but just as I don’t look at the negative stuff, I also don’t look at the positives. I don’t feel I need it. I don’t need to fill my head with stuff. All that matters is that you impress your peers, your coaches, and then hopefully you get the opportunity to put the shirt on and you do the nation proud and you do start to win over spectators.”
Scotland boast the meanest defence in the interrupted Six Nations and look altogether nastier in 2020 than they did during the horrors of Japan. Harris never went missing in the darkest depths of the World Cup campaign, always offered himself to charge and tackle and lodge his bulky frame over ball.
He joined Gloucester after the Falcons were relegated last summer. At 29, he feels the move has done wonders for his attacking swagger and instilled a deeper belief that he belongs on the international stage.
“Getting out my comfort zone in Newcastle – Newcastle was fantastic and I haven’t got a bad word to say about them, that’s where I got the bulk of my Premiership experience and my first caps, but moving has just freshened up so much,” Harris said.
“I’ve learned a lot from players and I think that is coming out on the attacking side. Coming down to Gloucester has definitely helped that.
“I’m hoping it is coming out in games, which I think it is, and if it wasn’t, I don’t think I would be playing for Scotland currently or would have gone to Japan. People probably prefer the ball-in-hand stuff. The other side is overlooked a lot more by spectators. I’m stronger on one side but I still offer a lot on the other side of the ball as well.
“I don’t know what journalists and spectators know about rugby – that would be a generalisation which I don’t want to make. But I think people enjoy watching the attacks, they like to see the wonder-tries, but defence is so important and maybe it is slightly overlooked.”
Gloucester can conjure some of the prettiest and most devastating rugby in England, with Danny Cipriani their sorcerer at fly-half, and so much attacking weaponry in their arsenal.
There is always the sense, though, that they perennially fall short of their full potential. Gloucester resume their Premiership season in ninth place, yet only Sale Sharks have conceded fewer tries and only Wasps have more try bonus points.
“Some of the rugby we played this season was quality,” Harris stressed. “With Danny and some of the other boys we had such a great brand of rugby; it was difficult to defend against when we got it right.
“We’ve got the second-best defence in terms of tries conceded. It’s obviously there – we just give far too many bloody penalties away. But coming to Gloucester has just been brilliant for me, man.”
The Premiership table is a congested maelstrom heading into the bonkers final throes of the season. Only nine points separate Bristol in fourth and Gloucester five places beneath them. If next term’s Champions Cup is expanded as has been widely mooted, the top eight will gain automatic entry to the pool stage.
Gloucester have had a more turbulent lockdown than most. Johann Ackermann, their jovial big coach, left in controversial circumstances and was replaced in even more controversial fashion by George Skivington. David Humphreys has gone as director of rugby, as have each of Ackermann’s assistant coaches.
Skivington is a rookie number one, but he and his lieutenants, Alex King and Dom Waldouck, are spoken about in glowing terms as free-thinking rugby men.
“All this stuff has happened where three coaches have left – it’s like a new club again,” Harris continued. “George likes the nitty-gritty, he’s an honest bloke and that’ll be good for us. Training has been full-on but that’s a good thing.
“As a club nothing has been said in terms of: ‘we have got to finish here’. Because there’s been so much change, let’s just take it week on week, get some wins under our belts and we’ll probably look two or three games in and think, hang on, we can make this.
“I’d love to be in that top four. It’s a given that we’ve got to be in that top eight, make that Champions Cup. Every team at the minute is a top-quality side. There literally aren’t any easy games.”
Wales are looming again as the Six Nations lurches to a finale. Fittingly, given the game’s ghoulish past for Harris, the rearranged fixture will be played on Halloween, although not at the Principality Stadium. How he’d love to send the Welsh dragon and the demons of Cardiff packing. How he longs for Scots to appreciate him for who he is and what he offers.
“I feel like I’ve dealt with that 2018 game well and I can just bury it; I can’t change it, I have just got to control what I can control,” Harris said. “All these clichéd things, but I’m just praying that I’ve done enough to win over a few of the fans, a few of the journalists. Nobody knew me [in 2018] and I still think that nobody does know particularly much about me. Maybe this will enlighten a few people.”
At Gloucester and with Scotland, Harris is making a name for himself the right way, dynamiting opponents, emptying himself for the cause, and continuing to display the very obvious scars of battle.
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