When I was studying in Leeds during the early Super League years, parting with my meagre student grant at the gates of Headingley was worth it just to watch Iestyn Harris at work. Between 1997 and 2001 in the blue and amber of Leeds, he was an absolutely sensational player and carried Leeds as good as single-handedly to the Grand Final in 1998 when he won every individual award going. I’ve interviewed Iestyn, now the Crusaders coach, on a number of occasions for Thirteen, Rugby League World and League Express. This piece was for Rugby League World in 2008 as part of the magazine’s ‘Big Interview’ series.
By his own admission, the career of Iestyn Harris is winding down and 2008 will probably be his last in Super League.
It’s a career that has seen him transfer listed by Warrington with a £1.35 million price tag placed upon him. It’s also seen him win the 1998 Man of Steel award and lift the Challenge Cup during a memorable four and a half year spell at Leeds before returning rather acrimoniously to their bitter rivals Bradford Bulls. In the meantime, he was a dual code international for Wales, picking up 25 union caps – the same figure as the legendary Barry John – while also starring for the Welsh Rugby League side from 1994 to 2000, winning the International Player of the Year award in 1995, for his performances in the European Championships and the World Cup.
His return to League brought him his first Grand Final success but precious little joy otherwise. Legal issues surrounding his 2004 signing with the Bulls have overshadowed his Odsal career while his beloved Wales were unceremoniously dumped out of the World Cup qualifying stages, with an indignant Harris insisting that their semi-final appearances in 1995 and 2000 should have seen them automatic qualifiers over Papua New Guinea at least. A fair point.
“I signed for Warrington in 1992 as a 15-year-old,” said Harris. “I had a year in the Academy as a 16-year-old and was then fast tracked into the first team after only three A-team games.
“We had a great coach in Brian Johnson who was big into the youth side of things. There was myself, Paul Sculthorpe, Jon Roper, Ian Knott and Mike Wainwright who were given early opportunities. This might sound sensible now but, back then, it wasn’t the norm. There were a lot of older players in the competition when it was a winter sport. The game was much slower and careers went on longer.
“I made my debut against Leigh in the 1993/94 season as a replacement for Jonathan Davies so on my debut I was kicking goals which made it even tougher. In the last training session before the game, Brian made me kick a goal with all the lads jeering and giving me grief. When I kicked it I think he thought I could handle the pressure if I could handle my teammates trying to put me off.
“We had some good professionals back then, like Paul Cullen. There was Greg Mackey too, Kevin Ellis, Allan Bateman as well as Jonathan. Guys like that ensured that it was a disciplined club and they taught the young players the right lessons.
“Young players back then spoke when they were spoken too. It’s a bit different now in a full-time environment when you’re around each other all of the time. When I first came in it was pretty daunting at times and because you only trained a few evenings a week, there was an air of mystery about them, which isn’t really there now so the junior/seniors relationship is a bit different. It was a good place to be but a frightening place at the same time.
“I was playing on the wing in my second season and that was the year that the Super League war broke out down under.
“The highest paid player at Warrington at the time, apart from Jonathan, who was a one-off case, was on about £15,000 pounds. But the Super League and the ARL bidding each other saw players becoming rich overnight. At the time, I was on £9,000 a year and I went to see the ARL who offered me £100,000 there and then and a massive salary on top. The idea was that I’d stay at Warrington for the remainder of my contract – two and a half years – then I’d go to Australia and play for an ARL club that they’d choose for me.
“But the catch was that I couldn’t play international rugby which totally put me off. I asked for 24 hours to think about it despite the prospect of walking out with a £100,000 cheque in my hand. Some of the other players were coming out with those cheques, punching the air in delight. But I ended up turning them down. I went to meet Super League and I signed with them for a lot less – £50,000 up front – and an improved deal at Warrington. I turned my back on a lot of money by not signing with the ARL but it kept the international Rugby League door open for me.
“With my fifty grand, I bought a car and I put a deposit down on a house and put a bit in the bank. The big names made a fortune for themselves – not to mention the solicitors and agents – but I was still lucky. Look at someone like Garry Schofield who had been a fantastic player for ten years but missed out on the big money by only a year or so.
“The best thing about Super League, though, was the weather. Games in mud heaps prolonged people’s careers but after a few years of summer rugby, the average age of the competition must have come down by quite a lot. I remember Mark Jones, the Warrington prop, just couldn’t cope. He was a great player in winter, big and strong, but he had to go back to union when the game speeded up.”
Back on the field, Harris and his teammates began the Centenary Season in good form, with Sky TV pundit Stevo tipping them to win the league. They didn’t manage that but they did reach the semi-final of the Regal Trophy but unfortunately were annihilated 80-0 in stunning fashion by a rampant St Helens. It was to be the beginning of the end for Harris at Wilderspool.
“When Brian Johnson left, it led to the worst period of my life under John Dorahy and Alex Murphy. Brian’s problems began with the infamous Regal Trophy semi-final loss to St Helens.
NP “We went into the game full of confidence and played OK for the first few minutes. But Saints scored. Then they scored again. Then again. And on it went with Bobbie Goulding in great form. At half-time, Brian told us to make no mistakes and get some respectability back but within 20 seconds Andy Currier made a half-break and threw a pass over his head, which Saints intercepted to score! And they just carried on scoring after that.
“We knew Brian was going to resign because he shook our hands after the game instead of shouting at us. The chairman Peter Higham, was ranting outside the dressing-room wanting to come in but Brian just shut the door in his face. He told us the next day that he was going.
“I was very sad to see him go because him and Clive Griffiths, his assistant, had done a lot for me. Clive took over the first team for a few games and had we won some of them he’d have got the job for good and if that had been the case then I’d have stayed at Warrington.”
Harris didn’t get his wish. Griffiths’s application for the job was unsuccessful and the former Wigan coach Dorahy came in with Murphy in a consulting role.
“I didn’t enjoy life with John and Alex at the club,” said Harris. “I didn’t really know what Alex was doing there. Obviously we all respected what he had done in the game but he wasn’t there in a coaching role. He used to sit upstairs, come down for a rant every so often then disappear back to his office. He once came into the dressing-room at half-time when we losing, slammed his fist onto the table and took a couple of water bottles to represent two defenders. He took another bottle to represent an attacker and said, “all you have to do is run through the defenders and put the ball over the line. It’s that simple.” And he stormed out! That was Alex for you.
“Even so, we beat Leeds in our first game of Super League in 1996, 22-18 at Headingley and got totally carried away with ourselves. I did an interview afterwards, saying that we could win the league. We thought we’d beaten a top side in Leeds but they ended up having a nightmare year, finishing tenth, so we hadn’t really beaten a good team. We went to Wigan in our third game, after beating Workington, and got hammered. That really brought us back down to earth, and we knew we had a long way to go.
“What I’ll always remember that game for was John trying to get one over on Wigan and failing spectacularly. There’s only about 12 miles between the two towns so he sent a message to Wigan that we were stuck in traffic and that we weren’t going to make the kick-off. We weren’t on the bus at all, we were warming up at Wilderspool and had got strapped and changed. We jumped on the bus aiming to get there at 7.25pm, five minutes before kick-off, to make them think that we wouldn’t be ready, even though we were.
“But it didn’t quite work. We were 24-0 down in ten minutes and got hammered!
“I’d had enough by this time and decided that I had to get away to further my career. I was on the transfer list and the club wouldn’t pick me for the last few weeks of the season but I was still picked by the Great Britain coach Phil Larder to go on the Lions Tour at the end of the year.”
The tour wasn’t a particularly memorable one. Great Britain were whitewashed 3-0 by New Zealand.
“I played in the halves with Bobbie Goulding who was a great player and he had had a very good year with Saints, leading them to the double,” remembers Harris.
“But he was the type of player who everything revolved around. Everything went through him and unfortunately, he was off form. When that type of dominant player is off his game, it’s difficult for the team to perform. We pushed them close in the first two Tests and lost the third by a wider margin. We didn’t play any attacking rugby though. It was just drive, drive, drive, kick. You’ve got to have a bit more about you in international rugby.”
When Harris returned from the tour, he knew his Warrington career was over.
“The club needed money and they knew that the two assets that they could cash in on were me and Paul Sculthorpe. They were trying to sell me to rugby union because they didn’t want me to go to another Rugby League club. Rugby union were offering good money at the time and guys from Wales came to see me, offering me a five-year deal on a lot of money.
“But I was only 20 and didn’t want to turn my back on Rugby League. Warrington became frustrated with me for turning the rugby union offer down so they wouldn’t let me train with the team. They made me train at four o’clock in the morning! I had to get out of bed at about quarter past three but, as you can imagine, there were only milk floats on the road at that time, so it didn’t take long to get in.
“Our poor fitness coach, Phil Chadwick had to get up as well to supervise me. He was so apologetic and told me that he thought that the whole thing stank. The club wouldn’t even let me use the gym or train on the pitch. I couldn’t use any club facility. This was all because I wouldn’t sign for a rugby union club.
“During the day, they’d make me run round and round the training pitches while they trained. The guys used to take the piss out of me, but in a jokey way. I lost two and a half stone with all that running and even in my first year at Leeds, I was underweight.
“Then, after about three months there were eight more lads on the transfer list so we were all having to do these 4am runs! It was completely farcical. In the end, a lot of the guys were transferred and it was down to me and Andy Currier. We’d just run to the chippy, sit on the wall, eat our food, throw some water on ourselves to make it look like we’d been running and go back. Luckily, I got a two-week break when Andy Greg picked me to play for Great Britain in the World Nines.
“It was all down to John Dorahy. He was a swine to put it mildly. They even had a £1.35m price tag on me. That was absolutely ridiculous.”
Harris’s likely destination was Knowsley Road, but Warrington still refused to budge.
“I was talking to St Helens quite a lot who were desperate to sign me according to one of their directors Mal Kay. They were trying to a deal with Warrington, offering about £300,000 but Warrington refused, still wanting me to go to union. But I refused to go to rugby union. It was complete stalemate.
“Then, having not trained with the first-team at all, John Dorahy, totally out of the blue, picked me in the squad for a Challenge Cup game against Sheffield. I didn’t know any of the moves but had a pretty decent game at fullback. Then he started asking if I’d stay and if we could put everything behind us but, after he’d made me run around a field for six months, there was no chance of that as far as I was concerned.
“Luckily, Leeds came in for me right at the death. Gary (Hetherington) told me he could do a deal straightaway and I went to meet him. Personal terms took no time at all to thrash out because I didn’t want any more money than I was already on at Warrington. I was on £75,000 a year at Warrington and that’s what Leeds paid me too.”
For Harris, life at Headingley provided him with his best times in the game. Leeds had failed to adapt to life in Super League, finishing a dismal tenth the year before. In Harris’s spell at the club, they moved up the table to fifth, then reached major finals in the next three seasons.
“I made a good start at Leeds, even setting up a try against Wigan with my first touch but I had a bit of a lull after that. I was still two stone under my playing weight and was trying to build myself back up. It wasn’t until the next pre-season that I could get myself sorted. I pulled out of the 1997 Great Britain side with a back problem but all the pre-season work paid off because 1998 went very well for me.
“They were really good times. When Graham Murray came in as coach, he built some steel around the side and created a great atmosphere around the place. He gave us belief that we were capable of winning things which we needed because Leeds had been struggling on and off the field before (chairman) Paul Caddick and (chief executive) Gary Hetherington came in and, of course, it had been over 20 years since they’d won a major trophy.
“Although we didn’t win anything in 1998, that year was a stepping stone to winning the Challenge Cup in 1999. We got to the first ever Grand Final in Graham’s first year – losing out to a piece of Jason Robinson magic in a very tight game – and we played our part in some great games along the way. It was a memorable year for me, winning the Man of Steel award and other individual honours. I was physically right in 1998 and that was down to Edgar Curtis, a Texan who was working at Leeds. I felt as strong and as quick as ever.
“All players want to start a season well and in the second game, I scored a hat-trick at Odsal and with my confidence up, I think I maintained that form. As a team, Graham made some big improvements and a lot of the players were playing better than ever. He was a great man manager, telling us what he expected of us and that if we didn’t hit those standards, we’d be out of the door. We all responded to that. He was a fantastic coach and it would be great to see him back in Super League. He enjoyed life over here and I think he’d come back to Super League if he gets the chance. After the way 1999 finished for us, he probably thinks he’s got some unfinished business to take care of. He’s a good character who shows his emotions and a lot of the coaches at the moment aren’t like that.
“He also brought in a couple of great stalwarts from Australia in Brad Godden and Marc Glanville who were two of the best players I’ve ever played with. They were so professional and adapted really well to the game over here. We had Daryl Powell too, another very experienced player who helped us a lot. Then there was Adrian Morley, who was emerging as one of the world’s best forwards. I always remember the game at Wigan in 1998 when he was on the receiving end of a horrific challenge from Mick Cassidy and with his eye popping out of his head, he still came back on in the second half. I’ve not seen anything tougher than that.
“1999 started well and we won the Challenge Cup, beating London in the final 52-16 but the cup win was about much more than the final. We beat Wigan with 12 men after Barrie McDermott got sent off for a high tackle on Simon Haughton, then we beat St Helens, then Widnes and then beat the Bulls in a titanic semi-final. We went 10-0 down – they had a third try disallowed for a forward pass – but we clawed our way back to 10-10 at half-time despite being totally outplayed. Ryan Sheridan got us back into it with an amazing ball steal on Danny Peacock. We scored two more tries in the second half – Marcus St Hilaire and myself – and won 23-10, a fantastic performance. Then there was the final and a big win after we’d been losing. Lifting the Challenge Cup at Wembley was a boyhood dream.
“We then went on a long unbeaten run after winning the final that but a few things weren’t quite right. Dean Lance, who was due to take over in 2000, came over for a few weeks which was really bizarre because he was joining in training sessions. We were wondering what was going on and maybe lost a bit of focus at the tail end of the year. We ended up losing a home match to Castleford in the play-offs and that was Graham’s coaching career finished at Leeds.”
Despite the disappointing end to 1999, Harris still felt that Leeds had a strong enough squad to dominate the competition. Unfortunately, however, Dean Lance endured a nightmare spell of just over a year in the Headingley hot-seat.
“Dean took a lot of stick for his time at Leeds and I wasn’t one of his biggest fans but I thought he was unlucky with a few things,” said Harris. “He had to make do without Marc Glanville and Brad Godden who had just retired and Dave Barnhill, who came in to replace Glanville, didn’t really perform.
“Dean lost his first five league games and never really recovered from that. If he’d started like a house on fire it could have been different but it went the other way.”
Lance’s – and Leeds’s – problems were compounded when winger Paul Sterling took him to court accusing his of racism. Lance had allegedly told Sterling he wouldn’t be considered for first-team selection with Sterling claiming it was because of his race.
“Sterlo was a fantastic player for Leeds but he couldn’t go on a pre-season training camp because of a family wedding. That pushed Dean’s nose out of joint and new coaches always like to stamp their authority so he dropped Paul. But, at that time, he was on fire and he was flying in training. He was a great player and should have been in the team so what Dean was doing was a bit strange.
“The whole of Dean’s reign was marred with issues of some sort and he never really settled in. He’d also fallen out with Edgar Curtis and brought in another fitness trainer who was undermining Edgar. There was a lot of hostility at the club and it wasn’t a good place to be. We needed to stay strong as a group but too many people within the club were pulling in different directions, with different cliques and rifts emerging. I certainly wasn’t enjoying my rugby at that time. We put together a decent Super League run, but it was just papering over the cracks and we ended up getting beaten at Odsal in the play-offs.”
Lance was sacked after a home defeat to Hull in round four of the 2001 season but Harris’s belief that Lance enjoyed little luck was borne out in that game. The Rhinos were missing their entire first-choice backline, apart from Francis Cummins and Brett Mullins who left the field with an early injury, but still only lost by two points – a decent effort. But Leeds lost patience with the Australian and replaced him with Academy coach, Daryl Powell whose own playing days had just ended.
“I’d played with Daryl for a few years and he was a smart, clever footballer who knew the game. I thought he’d make a fantastic coach.
“I didn’t play much under Daryl but I still wasn’t commited to going to rugby union at first. If Daryl had sat me down and asked me to stay with Leeds, I probably would have stayed because I was such good friends with him. But we never had that conversation.
“It was another difficult season for Leeds though. What Brett Mullins did in training was amazing; he was so skilful. But him and Brad Clyde just couldn’t get on the pitch – they had endless injuries. Clyde was just battered and bruised at the end of such a great career and Leeds got the rough end of the stick with those two. We expected those two players to do so much and it made it difficult for the club to perform when they were always injured.
“In the end, I wasn’t overly enjoying things at all. The club just hadn’t kicked on since the 1999 Cup win and it wasn’t a good place to be. They had recruited poorly on and off the field and while they’ve fulfilled their potential now by winning two titles in four years, back then it felt that we were a long way off. If we’d recruited properly after 1999, I think we’d have dominated the competition but it didn’t happen and it was so frustrating.”
After months of speculation, Harris moved to Cardiff to play rugby union. The Rhinos were heavily compensated for his departure and with Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire a new era was fast emerging. Harris won 25 Welsh union caps in his three years away from League before deciding to return in 2004. But who would he join?
“When I decided to come back to League in 2004, both the Bulls and the Rhinos came in for me. I spoke to Gary at Leeds on about half a dozen occasions but we couldn’t see eye to eye. He was only offering a 12-month rolling contract initially which wasn’t very attractive whereas talks with Brian Noble went very well. Gary changed tack right at the end offering a better deal, but I’d agreed to join the Bulls by then and I was happy with that choice.
“Leeds also had Danny McGuire so they didn’t need to sign another stand-off. That was obvious. Danny was sensational, ripping up the competition so it made sense to sign for the Bulls.”
After Harris signed, Leeds hit back claiming he was still contracted to them. The legal wranglings have continued since and, ironically, look to continue until after Harris has left the Bulls.
“It’s been so disappointing that all this legal stuff has hung over me because I wanted my stint at the Bulls to be my most enjoyable time in the game. But it’s been overshadowed by what’s been going on.
“Leeds and Bradford have had plenty of recent problems and this one case has given them both the opportunity to have a go at each other and I’ve been caught up in the middle. I’ve always been waiting for the next legal letter to come through the post and the next issue to arise and I’ll be glad when it’s done and dusted.
“It looks like Bradford and Leeds will be going to court next year but both clubs have been good with me so I’m hoping that I won’t have to go to court. I don’t want my family to have to go through that.
“Bradford and Leeds have their issues with each other and I’m staying out of that as much as possible. It’s a situation I want to be out of as quickly as possible and as painlessly as possible.
“If both sides could have seen where this would end up four years ago, I don’t think either would have bothered. It could have been sorted out around the table back then but things are never are like that once solicitors and barristers get involved.”
When Harris came back to League, he joined the Bulls midway through their 2004 campaign.
“When I came back, I was thrown into the deep end, playing in a Grand Final and a Tri-Nations within a few months of being back. My style of play had changed and Bradford were very different to Leeds had been, much more team orientated whereas at Leeds I’d done a lot of individual stuff.
“With all the trouble I was having with Leeds, the final just had to be against them. Unfortunately we lost but we made up for it by beating them 12 months later. And Great Britain did well in the 2004 Tri-Nations group stage, but the less said about the final (44-4 defeat to Australia) the better.
“2005 was very strange. We had so many great players but couldn’t string any results together. I was just finishing my autobiography at the time saying how we were having a poor season but after that, we won 13 games to win the Grand Final. The transformation was amazing and we felt that we could beat anybody.
“But the team began to break up. Players left at the end of 2005 but, to be fair to the club, they were negotiating with players who were playing poorly at the time. We lost Jamie Peacock, Leon Pryce and Lee Radford after the Grand Final and then we lost Brian Noble and Stuart Fielden during the following season.
“Only Brian will know what happened with his departure to Wigan but it was tough to go through as a club. He’d coached the club for a long time and knew the place inside out. Losing him was a blow. I was captain at the time and we had to get everyone focused. Steve McNamara came in as coach, with Brian Smith coming over from Australia to help out. We did a decent job, getting to the major semi-final in the play-offs, just losing out to Hull.
“The squad at Bradford has changed quite a lot since back then. We’ve got young blokes like Sam Burgess with such fantastic energy and desire to win things and we’ve got good strength in depth. The competition is evening out too with plenty of good teams around, so we probably won’t see one or two teams dominating like Bradford have in the past.”
Harris, like most observers, has high hopes for Burgess in particular.
“People forget that Sam’s only 19 because he’s huge and so dominant on the field. But, he’ll become tougher, both physically and mentally, and by the time he gets to 22 or 23, he could be one of the best players in the world if he stays injury free and keeps his feet on the ground.”
Of late, Harris has struggled to keep a regular place in the team, following the arrival of Ben Jeffries from Wakefield. After initially figuring in the starting line-up, he was dropped for two but then made his way back to the substitutes’ bench.
“I was bitterly disappointed to be dropped for those games because I’m feeling sharp and fit,” said Harris. “I’ve no injuries and I want to be involved in all the games but Ben’s come in and done well.
“To be honest, 2008 will probably be my last year as a player. I’ll be 32 in June and you can’t go on forever.
“I’m pretty desperate to get into the coaching side of things at the moment. That’s my longer-term aim at the moment. I’ve learned a lot in both codes and I think I can make an exceptional coach.
“You need to get the right position at the right time, starting with a good assistant’s job. That’s what I’m hoping to do.
“I may possibly play one more year but if I could choose the perfect scenario, I’d be on the coaching ladder next year.”
Clive Griffiths, the Wales coach for much of Harris’s career, pays tribute to the magnificent international career of the Welsh wizard
It was obvious to me that he would make it from the first time I saw him as a 16-year-old. I played Iestyn on the wing in the A-team to acclimatise him but he’d always be moving in-field to get his hands on the ball regularly.
But, of course, it’s his performances for Wales that stand out for me and there were plenty of magnificent performances from him. He actually started off as Jonathan Davies’s sand boy in 1993 against France and in the last minute Jonathan was facing a tough kick to win us the match. Iestyn came on with the sand, looked at JD, looked at the posts and told him he was glad it was Jonathan and not himself taking the kick!
He made his debut the year after as an 18-year-old against the Australian tourists. Up against Mal Meninga and players of that ilk, he was our best player.
We were decimated with injuries, having lost Jonathan Davies and Allan Bateman and many others. We even called Scott Quinnell into the squad who had only moved into League a fortnight earlier. So we had a weakened side but a very young Iestyn was magnificent that day.
We then won the European Championships in early 1995 with Iestyn in the centres playing very well and we went on to make the semi-final of the World Cup later in the year. Iestyn was our fullback in that competition and was named in the World Cup XIII. He also won the International Player of the Year award. He was magnificent against both Samoa and France and dealt with everything that England threw at him in the semi-final. They kicked endless bombs to him but he caught them all.
In 1996, he captained us to success at the World Nines in Fiji when we won the Trophy competition, beating Western Samoa in the final.
There was another European Championships that year, with us defending our trophy. We went to France first up and Iestyn scored a superb hat-trick of tries. We lost the decider to England but, once again, Iestyn was our best player and even though England won the tournament, Iestyn picked up the Man of the Series award.
We were outstanding again in 2000 in the World Cup, with Iestyn captain and it’s the semi-final that everyone remembers. We were beating the mighty Australians 20-8 midway through the first half and we still winning after about 55 minutes. Iestyn and a few others were in great form. His half-time speech was fantastic and it summed up his ability as a captain.
Paul Highton went to school with Harris and played with him in the 2000 World Cup
Iestyn was a fantastic captain. He was a players’ captain and did his best by the team. He was a great go-between between the players and the management. He was at the top of the game too, in great form in the Super League for Leeds.
I went to school with him at North Chadderton Comprehensive although he was a year older than me. He was a late bloomer to be honest. He was pretty unathletic and podgy but when he got to about 15, he blossomed and burst onto the amateur scene. He was in the town teams and there wasn’t a first division team who wouldn’t have been looking at him.
He was still at school when he signed for Warrington and made his debut for them. He’d be turning up in a sponsored car with his name written all over it. But he took his chance at a young age and did very well for himself.
We both coached Shaw Rhinos open-age side together so I’ve known him a long time and followed his career closely.
For a few years, there was no better player anywhere in his position. He was unbelievable for Leeds.