The Welsh Rugby Union’s first central contract, as awarded to Iestyn Harris, amounted to £1.6m with half of it paid to Leeds Rhinos in a world record transfer fee. Thirteen years on, the proposed cross-code move of ‘Slammin’ Sam’ Burgess from the Rabbitohs in Sydney to the English Premiership in time for the World Cup, will not cost any more than £500,000.
Even Harris admits that the £800,000 Wales paid Leeds in the late summer of 2001, was “silly money – a fortune in rugby terms especially for a player who hadn’t played the game before!”
In hindsight, his rushing straight into the international game in the flawed belief that a League stand-off could reinvent himself as an accomplished Union fly-half almost overnight was, if anything, sillier than the money.
Those League players who have crossed the Rubicon with distinction are an exclusive band, one headed by the peerless Jason Robinson, a breed almost entirely confined to wing-full backs like Lote Tuqiri and Israel Folau.
Sonny Bill Williams, a Test centre with the All Blacks, is one of very few to have succeeded in midfield. Brad Thorn, the
all-conquering All Black second row, is the only League player to transform himself into a tight-five forward of truly global dimension.
Nobody whose sole professional experience had been confined to League has achieved similar Union distinction as a stand-off, at least not yet. Benji Marshall’s attempt to be the first continued on Friday night with his appearance for the Auckland Blues against the Waratahs in a Super XV trial match in Sydney.
Marshall, voted the world’s best League player in 2010, is a New Zealander who went to Australia on a sports scholarship at 15 and began a cosmic League career at 18. Now a decade later, at 28, he is learning a whole new ball game and finding it difficult.
“I knew it was going to be hard but I thought I could cover a lot of the bases with the stuff I knew,” he said.“I was way off the mark. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“After the first couple of days, I realised I had to forget everything I knew and open my mind to learning everything new. When I first started, I was lost. Everyone was laughing at me.
“I didn’t know where to stand, I didn’t know where to run onto the ball, how deep or how flat I had to be. I was like a little kid with no idea. I think all the boys were thinking: ‘Holy hell…’
“I’ve had to throw most of the things I learnt in League out of the window. The same thing happened when I changed from Rugby Union when I was 15. It’s a completely different way of thinking. Every day I’m learning something new.”
Henry Paul’s move, from the Bradford Bulls to Gloucester, coincided with Harris’ to Wales. After a difficult period adjusting to the demands of fly-half, Paul moved to inside centre where he made three starts for England. The last one, against Australia, ended after 26 minutes when head coach Andy Robinson took him off – enough said.
Harris lasted longer, making 17 starts for Wales but in the end he was happy to take refuge in his natural League habitat. Graham Henry, then in charge of Wales and the driving force behind the WRU pushing the boat out a very long way, put Harris at No. 10 on the strength of two full club matches for Cardiff who had sub-contracted the player at half his £200,000-a-year salary.
Henry’s plan, according to Harris, was to ease his way in with a view to the Six Nations the following year and maybe give him ten minutes exposure during the autumn series. Instead Harris found himself picked for the first match, against Argentina.
“This came as something of a shock,” Harris writes in his autobiography, There And Back. “It put me more than six months ahead of schedule and I’d done nothing to deserve it. I must admit I did have a slight misconception about the way the game was played.
“I didn’t know at the time that games could become so technical. But because of the way people get carried away with rugby in Wales no-one wanted to listen to the other view, that I wasn’t ready for international rugby. How could I be after just 200 minutes playing a new sport?”
Harris learnt the hard way, via some brutish experiences in a poor team. Wales lost 54-10 in Dublin in 2002, forcing Henry to resign. They then lost 50-10 to England at Twickenham under the new coach, Steve Hansen.
Clive Woodward had by then asked the RFU to spend a seven-figure sum on four League players – Jason Robinson, Kris Radlinski, Gary Connolly and Paul. They backed him on Robinson and two years later, before signing for Wales, Harris had the chance to sign for England instead.
“When Clive Woodward heard I was probably heading to Rugby Union, he phoned me around four times with a view to try and make me pick England rather than Wales,” Harris said. “Being born in England, I would have had no trouble qualifying for them. I presume I would then have been settled with a Union club like Leeds or Sale, with Jason (Robinson) and slowly brought into the England set-up.
“But in the end I never returned Clive’s calls. I hope he never thought I was being disrespectful or rude but I knew there was no point even starting the conversation because the only country I wanted to play for was Wales.”
His arrival had at least one adverse side-effect. It prompted Wales’ newly-elected IRB Young Player of the Year, a 19-year-old by the name of Gavin Henson, to walk out of a team meeting in protest at realising he had dropped further down the fly-half pecking order.
Henry never picked Henson again. Henson, who described the new assistant Wales coach Steve Hansen as ‘a grim-faced Kiwi who made Henry look like one-half of the Chuckle Brothers’, plays for Bath these days, his fractious Wales career sadly a thing of the past.
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