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'One of the best defensive 13s in the world game just now': The transformation of Chris Harris from Scotland nobody to potential Lions starter

By Liam Heagney

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Chris Harris is surely a contender for the standout coming of age story in the Scotland ranks in recent times. For quite a long period his face didn’t fit with Gregor Townsend. First capped in November 2017, the initial 27 months of his Test career were dominated by fleeting cameos from the bench, eleven runs as a replacement in his initial 16 caps. 

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Now all has utterly changed. Since getting handed the No13 shirt for the February 2020 Guinness Six Nations win over Italy, the 30-year-old has been an ever-present at outside centre. That’s nine straight appearances in a row, with a tenth set to happen this Sunday against Ireland. 

Only Ali Price and Scott Cummings, who are both set for their twelfth consecutive starts, boast a greater selection consistency in the XV to take on the Irish. 

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Scotland’s Finn Russell guests on RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson
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Scotland’s Finn Russell guests on RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson

What gives? There was a time when the juggle between international and Gallagher Premiership rugby was too much of a challenge, the over and back across the border from Scotland to England taking a toll on his performances.

He told RugbyPass as much back in February 2019, a month that started with him scoring a Six Nations try off the bench in round one only to find himself not capped again until round five. 

“If you asked me last year I would have said I was more under pressure, but I have adapted to it now,” he said about the on-off relationship he was having with Scotland while playing club rugby in England. “It’s just part of the rugby career. If you’re part of international duty that is just the way it is. I have developed a lot since this time last year. I’m pretty comfortable in dealing with the situation.

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“It was just the change of environment, the disappointment of not being selected for Scotland – which is still the case – but it’s just dealing with it better now. If you come back into the club and you’re still a bit down not being involved with Scotland, you have got to go and in a performance. It’s just a matter of how you deal with it.”

Harris has since had a switch in clubs, moving to Gloucester after five years at Newcastle, and his impact this past year has been such that not only is he now a constant on Townsend’s Scotland team sheet but he is being touted as a potential Lions Test series starter later this year. That’s quite a transformation for someone who for quite a while was only a bit-part contributor at international level, essentially a nobody to Scottish fans and media.

Now though? “He is very consistent,” enthused Townsend when asked why Harris has become such a familiar face in the Scotland set-up. “You know you are going to get a lot of work rate out of Chris. He is an outstanding defender, one of the best defensive 13s in the world game just now.

“And he has worked hard on his attacking game. His running lines have improved a lot but also he has got more confidence in taking on the opposition with the ball in hand. We saw that in the last game against Wales when he had a couple of breaks out wide, so he is building an all-round game.

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“He is one of our leaders defensively and he is a really good influence on those around him. It’s great he is available again this week. He played for his clubs last week. I thought he had a fantastic performance in their win against Wasps and it’s great he was fully fit for training this week.   

“It has been a while since he was left out. He came off the bench at the start of the World Cup and the way he trained meant it was going to be difficult for us to leave him out. Since then he has worked hard to make sure that he doesn’t lose that opportunity and has played consistently well for us.

“I must say as well Huw Jones’ form this year has been excellent, so we feel with those two guys pushing really hard at 13 we have got a very good depth and different types of players as well.”

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'One of the best defensive 13s in the world game just now': The transformation of Chris Harris from Scotland nobody to potential Lions starter

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