It’s still one of rugby’s strangest recruitments, how a visit by Dylan Hartley to his old Rotorua school during the 2011 World Cup resulted in Teimana Harrison, the Northampton skipper for Sunday’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Exeter, effectively doing a Hartley – upping sticks, leaving New Zealand and making a life for himself in the English Midlands that even included representing his adopted country.

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Sharp as a tack, Harrison admits it remains the one opportunity that most changed his life. Recently turned 28, he’s a new father these days, a new business owner as well, but everything he has achieved dates back to that sliding doors moment nine years ago when Hartley went on an educational reminiscence and picked up some excess baggage.

“I’m a long time in England,” enthused Harrison to RugbyPass, his September 5 birthday the prompt for him to skirt down memory lane and reflect how the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have unfolded at Northampton. “It has been nine years over here. I love it over here. It’s home now. I have met a lot of good people, my partner is from England. I can definitely see myself staying. It’s definitely home for me now.”

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Further underpinning the passage of time is how his old mentor Hartley is now past tense in the rugby sense, his stellar playing career over and all the details of the various ups and downs packed into the widely acclaimed tome released two days before Harrison’s birthday.

“I like to reflect back on opportunities and like to think I have taken the majority of opportunities that I have taken – and that is definitely the one that has changed my life the most,” continued Harrison, recalling the moment when he was invited north of the equator as a precocious 19-year-old.

“He [Hartley] was the biggest influence on me coming over and was the biggest influence on me staying here. Just being able to meet him and talk to him and get his take on it. I went through a bit of a rough patch after a couple of months when I first got here. I sort of wanted to pack it in and go back home. But him and Paul Tupai were the guys that sat me down and said, ‘Look, this is your opportunity and you only get it once. You throw this away and it’s gone forever’. Having them two wise heads around has always been good for me. I owe a lot to him.”

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Their bond remains strong even if Hartley’s retirement, followed by the lockdown, means their lives are now following different trajectories. “It’s still good. It’s been good to be able to pick up the phone and to talk to him and pick his mind on things that I’m necessarily not good at, leadership roles and everything, just trying to pick his brain, getting tips on how to manage the team.

“It’s been really good to have him around still even though he has left the club,” explained Harrison before delving into one of September’s hottest topics, the painful legacy rugby can have on an ex-player’s body. It was last month when James Haskell, who spent the final year of his career at Saints, outlined to RugbyPass how his body had lately fallen apart, a grime tale since mirrored by Hartley’s candid book revelations about how he painfully limps around from place to place.

Those stories were sharp reminders to Harrison that health is real wealth. “James Haskell was a big one for me,” he said. “In his last couple of years the amount of tape that he had to put on to put a performance together. Rugby is a contact sport and it takes it out of you for sure, especially when you have been playing the game as long as them guys have been. It does leave some probably life-changing damage.

“It is interesting to read Dyls’ book and his views on it. People needed to hear that because a lot of people have been scared to say what he said in his book. It lets people know because it [rugby] is hard. People criticise a bad performance from someone but they don’t necessarily know the amount of willpower to get up and put a good performance in. It does take a lot to put a performance in when your body is struggling and you’re beaten up from a long season, or in Dyls’ case twelve or 13 seasons.”

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With Hartley’s career finished at 33 and Haskell put out to pasture at 34, Harrison is aware the clock is ticking regarding his own rugby mortality and rather than this year’s pandemic lockdown being a negative, he endeavoured to put it to good use in Northampton by laying the foundation for a post-career business in the rag trade.

A petrolhead, who took delivery of a new Harley in recent months to go with his dirt bikes and his drift car, Harrison was never the biggest fan of clothes growing up but the Northampton dressing room culture, where looking the part is important, piqued his interest.

It reeled him in over time and while to many launching a new business during the lockdown would be economic madness, the free time Harrison had away from rugby became his perfect learning ground to quickly learn the ropes and get things moving with Wolfe and its array of wardrobe essentials.

“Back to Dyls talking about his body is broken, you can’t really go into anything physically with your body,” said Harrison, explaining why he has taken the route into selling threads. “I always use Rob Horne as an example, you never know when your time is, when your career is going to be called. If I can start something up now when I have still got about four years, five years left in me – hopefully by then the business is running itself and is producing a good income for me and is something I can fall back on.

“In the present it is helping me as something that takes my mind off rugby so when I leave the ground and stuff I can keep my mind ticking over, it’s not about rugby and I can completely switch off with that and I’m fresh when I come back in in the mornings.

“It’s been an awesome project for me, something that I can focus on through the lockdown as well. When you’re at the club you have always got a programme, always have got a schedule to work to and the first couple of weeks of lockdown I was a bit lost without that so my business helped me get schedule back in my life and gave me something to work towards.

“It was probably the worst time to launch given the situation and everything, people losing their jobs. It has been a massive learning curve but we are in a good place as a business considering the conditions and everything going on. Looking forward to seeing what the future has for sure. It would be nice once everything is back to normality a little bit.

“I wouldn’t say I was the biggest fan of clothes. I always had a different taste in clothes, especially here. Again, that has been a massive learning curve, trying to sit back and listen to what boys’ ideas that they have and what they actually wear and what the fashion is now. That takes a bit of research to figure that out but I have got a lot of guys around me that are pretty fashion conscious, so it’s nice to pick their brains about what they would wear. A lot of boys have helped me with designing it.”

Affirming as well during lockdown was the effect having no rugby had on his family life. A downside was how the restrictions robbed him of his bi-annual trip home to New Zealand in the traditional off-season, but the heart-warming upside was the invaluable time Harrison got to spend with his 15-month-old, something that would have been greatly reduced if rugby at Northampton had continued its relentless demands.

“You get caught up when you’re playing rugby, that it is your life. You spend more time at the rugby club around your boys than you do with your family, but I got to see things that I probably would have missed out on if we were playing rugby. I got to see his first steps, I got to see him develop from a baby to a little toddler. All those things are really valuable. In saying that, it’s good to be back and into a routine and around the boys.”

Just don’t mention the results. Before the Premiership juddered to a halt last March, Saints would have been favoured to make the play-offs and further endorse the progress under Chris Boyd that had seen them qualify in January for the last-eight in Europe. Now, they are adrift in seventh and scratched from the top four race following just a single win in seven outings.

It’s an annoying sequence for Harrison as the Northampton back row had always wished the top flight would experiment with a summer season. “It suits the style we want to play, not necessarily the style that we have been playing, but we want to throw the ball around and get some good running rugby.

“You have see a massive difference, especially in the scorelines that have been happening over the last couple of weeks. It’s exciting rugby whereas you go to a winter game and you go down to The Rec and it’s boggy and everything. Unless you are a die-hard rugby forwards fan you don’t really want to watch that sort of rugby.

“Everyone is still in good spirits. Although the results haven’t been going our way we have been putting in some good work. Just a couple of times we switch off and don’t convert pressure into points. But things are going to come right and it’s exciting to be still involved with the Champions Cup.

“That is a massive focus, get a performance for Exeter. I get what you’re saying with fans, people only see the results really. But we’re not a million miles off. We just need to filter mistakes and cut them out of out game. We need to perform how we did before lockdown happened.”

That advice applies to Harrison as much as anyone else in the Northampton dressing room where his pre-game routine is to have his headphones on to chill with some Bob Marley (Three Little Birds is his favourite) or New Zealand raggae while Lewis Ludlam fires out the music that collectively gets the Saints pumped for a match.

It’s 2016 since the Kiwi won the last of his five England caps. Eddie Jones was in touch earlier this year and while winning a sixth cap would mean the world to Harrison, getting it spot on for Northampton is top of the agenda.

“That is always the ambition – until I retire I’ll be gunning for an England spot again. But no, I don’t think I will be in the mix for that. I need to focus on my performances here, I need to get back to where I was pre-lockdown. My focus is on here, getting us into the semi-finals.

“No contact from Eddie at the minute but that is down to me, I haven’t been putting in the performances that warrant an England call. I’m probably a little off the pace from where we before Covid. Just a couple of little things that I need to tweak in my game, just getting the ball into my hands a little bit more, hunting for that work rather than being stuck out on the wings a lot.”

Harrison Hartley England

Teimana Harrison with Dylan Hartley on England duty (Photo by David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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