Tuesday 16 October 2018

The Wright stuff

WHEN I first encountered Jason Harris Wright, I was about 14. He was about 14 stone and charging towards me, Gaelic football in hand.

Like a fool, I stood my ground. Pretty soon, I was on that ground, wondering what the hell had just ploughed through me.

Fast forward the clock 10 years and Harris Wright is still steamrolling through people. The only difference is that now the ball is oval-shaped and he gets paid to do it.

But how does a man who grows up in Kilcoole dreaming of playing for Leinster end up living in Galway, as a professional rugby player for the lesser-fancied Connacht?

Harris Wright's road to success glory is a true local boy comes good story for the most part. Starting off in Greystones Rugby Club as a nipper, he describes the mini-rugby played there as 'carnage'.

But that carnage still helped him develop his love for the game and when his days in primary school came to an end, there was little doubt where his next step would take him; the rugby-obsessed Pres Bray.

It was there that Harris-Wright made the first famous double barrel second name in Irish rugby, long before Ross O'Carroll Kelly came along.

While in Pres, Harris-Wright starred at number eight as they made it all the way to the JCT final, only to have their dreams dashed away from them by Blackrock. And it was around that time that the 25 year old began to seriously consider a potential career in rugby.

"We had a really good year but we just got pipped at the post by Blackrock who had a very good side. That was probably one of my best moments in school in terms of rugby. It would've been great to win it but obviously we came up a little bit short.

"It was a great experience. We had a pretty good team. At the start of the season we probably wouldn't have thought that we would have got there. We didn't have an unbelievable amount of talent but we were a pretty good team together. There were a lot of my friends on that team so it was great to play and do something like that with your friends.

"The Cup teams would've been a bit more serious and when I got a bit older I would've started taking it a bit more seriously. It was probably kind of third or fourth year, that was probably when I started to focus a bit more and try and make good decisions in terms of diet and stuff like that."

And the hysteria and furore surrounding Harris-Wright and his school-mates at the time rubbed off on him, and he decided that he wanted that feeling on a more regular basis.

"Growing up as a kid I always wanted to be a professional but that was probably my first taste of it, in terms of playing in bigger stadiums with bigger crowds and stuff like that. The bit of success does make you want it more. That probably was the first time I'd had the big stadium and the big crowd and obviously you love playing in those games and they're the ones every rugby player wants to play in."

His ambitions came at a price though. Feeling that he would be neglected by the powers that be if he remained at Pres, Harris-Wright spread his wings and transferred to Blackrock for one final crack at winning a schools medal.

"It was after fifth year. I played with Pres in fifth year and then went on to Blackrock for sixth year, my last year.

"It was and it wasn't (a hard decision). One of my good friends Kian Grace ended up leaving as well; he went to St. Michael's. It was more from a point of view, I felt at the time that it'd be easier to make the representation teams in a bigger school. I think you definitely get more exposure in those schools, your games are watched more. In my opinion, you've a better chance of making those underage squads at Leinster and that was my main reason for the move. Obviously it goes from those representation teams to – if you're lucky enough – you can get into the academy and push on from there. So that was kind of my main reason for the move.

There was to be no fairytale happy ending for him though. In what was considered one of the biggest shocks to be seen on these shores, Kilkenny dumped Blackrock out of the SCT. Despite that, Harris-Wright stands by his decision.

"No, no regrets. Obviously I would've loved to have won a schools medal and I think we definitely had the team and the players to do it but I think we didn't play well on the day and we lost. At the time, it's pretty disappointing. It seems like the be all and end all but you kind of realise that it's not everything in terms of rugby. I had other aspirations after that to do other things. It was obviously disappointing at the time but you move on pretty quickly and you have to try and refocus on what your goals are."

In the summer of 2007, his school days came to an end. He returned to Greystones, where it had all began, and bided his time. A spot in the Leinster academy was his target and a spot in the Leinster academy was what he got.

"That was my goal. Before that, I was playing club rugby in Greystones and I had my Irish underage things to worry about and then the Leinster academy position came along. It really was one step at a time. You don't start thinking I want to be that or I want to be this or I want to be a professional. Getting into the academy is the first thing then once you've got into the academy you might want to get a development contract and things like that.

"I'd been kind of involved in underage set-ups from maybe going into fourth year. It would've been summer training and things like that. And then it gets a little bit more serious when you're in sixth year, you have the Leinster U-18s and the U-19s and the Irish U-19s and things like that. And then after those you find out if you're getting into the academy so it was always progress really. You just have to take it one step at a time. I think all those steps are leading towards making those teams and giving yourself a chance of making those academies or whatever."

While with the Donnybrook club, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll et al. He rose through the ranks and it cumulated in him playing a part as Leinster claimed a Heineken Cup trophy.

"It was great (at Leinster). I remember when I first went in it was all about being ready when you get your chance and when you do get it, try and take it. I remember playing a few 'A' games with a lot of lads from my year and then I think I played once with the seniors in my first year. It was my probably my second year when an injury happened to one of the other hookers and I got a chance to be involved pretty much every week. It was obviously great, I was playing with some of the best players in the world and it was a great set-up. I was a bit surprised at the start but you get pretty used to it pretty quickly. They're just like anyone else around you.

"It was great (winning the Heineken Cup). If someone had've told me a year previously that it was going to happen (I wouldn't have believed them). It was pretty special, it was great to be involved; great to be part of something like that even if I only got on for a few minutes. It's obviously a big highlight of my career and I'll always remember it but I have aspirations to do something like that again."

Harris-Wright didn't bask in the glory for too long though. Shortly afterwards, he brought his time at Leinster to an end. Leaving one of the best sides in the world cannot be an easy decision, but Harris-Wright explains that he felt it was crucial for him to do so to further his career.

Bristol was his next home, but injuries scuppered that chapter of his life and resulted in his eventual switch to Connacht.

"I left maybe six months after the final and it was pretty much just – after talking to the coaches at Leinster – it was just to get game time.

At the time, Sean Cronin came in and obviously Richard Strauss was there and they're pretty good strength in depth at hooker. So it felt like the best thing for me was to play games and I wasn't guaranteed enough first team games with Leinster so it was kind of a pretty easy decision once a good opportunity came up. I went to the UK then for a couple of months, it probably didn't work out as well as I'd hoped – I picked up a few injuries but I got to play some games and then after that I headed to Galway so it's all worked out pretty well.

"I had another year left on my contract with Bristol but I had an option to get out of it if I'd wanted so once I heard Connacht were interested, it was a pretty easy decision for me. I knew what they were doing there, I knew the coaches – Dan McFarland and Eric Elwood at the time. They were my Irish 20's coaches so I knew what they were about so obviously with the Irish connection – I have aspirations to play for Ireland, it was the main factor."

As a youngster, Harris-Wright would never have envisaged a career with Connacht but now that he's there, he intends to make the most of it. And he feels that they're headed in the right direction, pointing to their victory over Toulouse as proof of that.

"It's a funny game, you never know where you're going to be in a year's time. You can't really know where you're going to be and you have to expect the unexpected.

"We've shown that on our day we can pretty much beat anybody. We're in a pretty good place but we just have to have a bit more consistency. We can't post a really good result one week and then slacking off the following week with our performance. We're working on that consistency each week.

"It was pretty good (the victory over Toulouse), it was right up there with the best highlights of my career. It was a special day. They hadn't lost there in a couple of years or even longer in the Heineken Cup and they're one of the most successful teams in Europe over the last ten or 15 years. So it was a pretty tough task but we played well and we stuck to our game-plan and our structure. We defended pretty hard for the last 10 minutes and it was great. It's something that I'll look back on when I've retired and I'll never forget."

Clubs aren't the only aspects of his life he has switched in recent years. Having rose to prominence as a number eight, Harris-Wright converted to a hooker and although it wasn't easy – learning line-out throws being the main thorn in his side – he is now relishing his role.

"I played at eight all through school and then I played for the Irish 19's as a six at the World Cup and it was really my 20's years – when I left school and played for Greystones senior team – I was going for the Irish 20's and I'd been told a lot younger than that that my future was at hooker. I wasn't tall enough for the back row so I was told by the representation coaches that's where my future was. It was a pretty easy decision after that. It was then that I really focussed on it and made the transition to hooker.

"That's the main trouble (having to learn to throw). I think playing in the back row growing up actually helped me because it helped me around the pitch; I'd be a bit more dynamic and maybe have a few more skills than normal hookers would but like you said, the main difficulty is throwing. It's a pretty tough skill to master and it really is just hours and hours of practice. It sounds cliché but it's true. The main thing for me was getting good coaches who helped me get my technique right. I spent a lot of time practising and trying different things and it took me a couple of years to finally discover what worked for me. And then once I found that, I just kept working on it and practising it and obviously it never really stops. You're pretty much always working on it."

Something else he is working on is catching the attention of Joe Schmidt. And although he doesn't know what his international future holds, his club future looks to be secure. But as he says himself, "you have to expect the unexpected".

"I'd be lying if I said that wasn't one of my aspirations. There's a lot of steps that go before that, I just want to keep playing well here in Connacht and hopefully I'll be doing enough over the next season or two to put my hands up and hopefully selectors like what I'm doing. The main thing is to keep playing here and keep working hard and the rest will hopefully look after itself.

"I'm signed up for the rest of this season and next season but I'm really enjoying it at the moment. It's a great set-up and there's a great bunch of lads and I'm getting to play rugby each week; that's all I need. I'm really enjoying it which is the most important thing."

And how much would everyone in the Garden County enjoy seeing another home talent pulling on the Green jersey? I certainly would, but thankfully I wouldn't be standing in his way if that day comes.

Nickname? Meathead. The lads give me grief for lifting weights and stuff.

Biggest fear? Snakes.

Most famous person you've met (outside rugby)? Bono maybe? He was in a cafe one day and I bumped into him.

Any superstitions? I suppose. I used to be a lot worse though.

Best trait in rugby? Probably my work-rate.

Best personal trait? Honesty.

Last thing you dreamt about? Being late for training.

Best present ever received? My dog.

Most annoying habit? Saying the same words over and over again.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten? Shark. Not nice. I only ate it for days like this to say I've eaten shark.

This or That?

Tea or coffee? Coffee.

Xbox or Playstation? Playstation.

Chinese or chipper? Chinese.

GAA or hurling? GAA.

Pints or spirits? Spirits.

Water or Lucozade? Water.

McDonalds or Burger King? McDonalds.

Kilcoole or Galway? That's tough. Kilcoole.

Bray People