Why the Lions have turned to master of defence Chris Harris, by the team-mates and coach who know him best

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Chris Harris - Why the Lions have turned to master of defence Chris Harris, by the team-mates and coach who know him best - GETTY IMAGES
Chris Harris - Why the Lions have turned to master of defence Chris Harris, by the team-mates and coach who know him best - GETTY IMAGES

When discussing their relationships with their centre partner Chris Harris, Gloucester's Mark Atkinson and Scotland's Sam Johnson both admit that as hard as the new British and Irish Lions Test centre works on the field, he is more than ready to let his hair down off it.

"Off the pitch, he’s the first bloke who will grab a beer and want to have a good time and get to know his team-mates," says Johnson, while Atkinson adds: "We’re both big believers that wins should be enjoyed properly." The Lions will be hoping Harris is leading the charge on Saturday night in Cape Town if they can emerge victorious in the second Test and clinch the series with South Africa.

Harris is one of three Lions changes, coming into midfield to partner Robbie Henshaw, and what the Scotland centre will bring according to those two team-mates who know him so well and his head coach at Gloucester, George Skivington, includes more bulk, a lung-busting work rate, and one of the sharpest defensive minds in Europe.

"Everyone at Gloucester is elated for him," says Skivington. "We know what he can do and in a big, physical game against the South Africans, he suits that perfectly."

Harris, now 30, has certainly had to be patient, kicking on since arriving at Gloucester from Newcastle in 2019. The 2020-21 season saw his talent recognised by the wider public, even though team-mates and coaches have been in on the secret for years. He only truly nailed down the Scotland 13 shirt towards the end of last year's Six Nations, having made his Test debut three years prior.

"He might not come across as the flashiest of players, scoring worldies or whatever like your typical 13, but he’s finally getting the recognition he has always deserved," explains Johnson. "His coaches and team-mates have always seen it there."

Skivington adds: "He’s earned it the hard way. It’s not been given to him. He’s worked really hard at what he’s good at and Warren Gatland has rewarded him."

Atkinson, who has formed a robust centre partnership with Harris at Gloucester, notes that it is not only Harris's ability to read defences individually which makes him special, but his improving grasp on marshalling an entire defensive unit.

"He’s just very, very good at reading attacks. Centres are in a position where you have to double defend the most – both the short ball and be aware of what's going on out the back. He’s lightning quick at making his decision and then executing it quickly," Atkinson explains. "A lot of people can be passive at times but he’s instant – reading the situation, through the man and positive with his decision making. That’s the key to it, he’s very positive.

"In the last six months to a year, I’ve seen a different side of him, not just him being a good defender, but improving with helping with the overall defence. There’s a huge difference between him being a brilliant defender and helping the defensive structures and organisation of the team. That’s a real skill that has come on in the last six months especially, the leadership part of his defence."

For all the focus on Harris's tackling he also has plenty to offer in attack, with an offloading game and ability to get over the gain line, as Skivington notes.

"He’s probably the best defending 13 in the British Isles and Ireland. But I think he’s shown a lot more than that on this tour, and for Gloucester. He has a nice outside line which he finds, a very good offload game, that ability to free up the ball and get it away. He’s such a good defender, and that’s what gets spoken about, but it’s not that he has a lack of attack."

Johnson adds: "In attack, people talk about his defence and how good he is, but his deft touches and skill set going forward are really good too. His whole game has come on leaps and bounds."

The Lions chosen midfield combination of Henshaw and Harris certainly doesn't lack any muscle, as Atkinson explains.

"You wouldn’t want to play against them. You are not getting much. You are not going to be able to pull those two apart very easily and they’re going to keep going for 80 minutes. That’s two b----- hard-working, very good defensive centres there, and they can both carry a ball. It’s a nice partnership."

When Harris runs out for the Lions on Saturday it will be worth all those years of perseverance, whatever the outcome of the second Test.

"I couldn’t think of a more deserving person to be playing for the Lions this week to be honest," Johnson concludes. "The way he conducts himself on and off the field, he’s the hardest worker that I know from my time playing rugby."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting