When you think of Iestyn Harris the mind immediately wanders to the million pound man who switched from rugby league to rugby union with Cardiff in 2001, the mercurial talent at fly-half and inside centre.
Over the next few years though, the first thought may become the Cardiff Blues hooker who is currently making his way through the system at the Arms Park, signing his first professional deal this summer and preparing for a first season as part of the senior squad.
This Harris hails from the Rhondda Valley, starting out in rugby at Wattstown RFC and moving through the superb Rhondda Schools Rugby setup, before playing for Cardiff Blues age grade sides alongside winning WRU College Leagues with Coleg y Cymoedd.
He earned Wales U18 honours along the way, but in recent years has struggled with injuries, missing much of the 2017/18 season with Pontypridd due to them, and then spending the entire 2018/19 campaign in the treatment room with a serious knee problem.
However, Harris is now back fit and firing after featuring eight times for Cardiff RFC on the comeback trail last season, and looking to rediscover the form that saw him really catch the eye while starting at hooker for Wales U20 in 2018.
When you think about the great Cardiff Blues hookers over the last few years; T Rhys Thomas, Gareth Williams, Matthew Rees, Kris Dacey, what underpins all their games is a big engine. That work rate puts them in areas to positively impact the game, as well as catches the eye of supporters, making them all fan favourites.
Watch a few games involving Iestyn Harris and you quickly realise that this young man has a superb engine on him, getting around the field like a back rower but with the compact physicality that only the front row can bring.
Whether that’s kick chasing, making tackles on outside backs in the wide area or making tackles on consecutive phases during a try line defensive set, Harris has that desire to make his mark on proceedings. Of course beyond that the technical aspects of a hooker’s game need to be tied down, and the 21-year-old certainly showed he is well on his way in this respect.
Now these pieces are generally to shine a light on the positive aspects of a player’s ability that I think can make it in the first team at Cardiff Blues and beyond, but they’re not simply to blow smoke up the backside of players, so in the interest in fairness it should be pointed out that Harris’ throwing during the 2018 World Rugby U20 Championship wasn’t up at near 100%.
However, he gets it right more often than not, with that throw to the back in the attacking lineout funding the jumper in traffic and laying the base for Ryan Conbeer to score a superb try. As he continues to progress and mature, pushing that throwing percentage into the high 80s and early 90s will hopefully become standard for him.
Then at scrum time he can anchor the set piece in a way that some players who convert to hooker from the back row later in their development struggle with. Looking at that clip he hooks quickly and stays tight to his props, teaming up with the loosehead to pincer the tighthead and get the drive going.
So with the work rate and the technical work at the heart of Harris’ game, there is then the adaptability of his use in open play to concentrate on, which make him a key man on both sides of the ball.
Harris has a level of mobility around the field that the modern hooker increasingly needs. Looking at the top players in the world; Dane Coles, Malcolm Marx, Jamie George, they all have a dynamic aspect to their performances that make them a threat across the field.
Whether it’s carrying in the wider channels or not being beaten in one-one-one matchups away from the fringes of a breakdown, Harris has the speed and athleticism to make plays around the field. This is likely why we end up with the second clip, where he is making tackles in the 10 channel off a lineout where the majority of team would employ a flanker to assist the fly-half.
Harris is then equally comfortable showing off his physicality in the tight game, with the carry against New Zealand a particular highlight as he gets across the gain line and puts Wales on the front foot against the always dominant Baby Blacks.
Defensively he does a lot of good work around the edges of the breakdown, driving ball carriers back and forcing turnovers with the strength of his tackling, as well as taking this piece full circle with his engine and work rate getting him quickly off the line.
With Dacey, Kirby Myhill, Liam Belcher and Ethan Lewis also in the senior squad it’s going to be a battle for game time this season, but Iestyn Harris has the potential to take advantage of his team-mates failing to hold down spots in the matchday 23, and push Dacey for that starting spot over the next few years.
Hooker is a position that could well see a big change in personnel over the next few years, and with a well-managed development spell over the next two years Harris could be someone to benefit from that, which would only benefit Cardiff Blues ultimately. These young players are the future of the club post-pandemic, let’s get them brought through properly and help us get set for the next decade.