Monday 18 December 2017

'You have an advantage at the bigger schools'

Switch from Bray to 'Rock proves crucial for Harris-Wright, writes Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

'I saw how hard it was to make representative teams even when you were playing well in a smaller school." The situation that Jason Harris-Wright found himself in during his schooldays reflects that of many young, hopeful professional rugby players.

Having attended Presentation College, Bray for five years, the Connacht hooker knew his potential rugby career would suffer if he wasn't playing in the Senior Cup for one the so-called 'big six'.

Even at such a young age, Harris-Wright's maturity was clearly evident and, although his Senior Cup career was short lived, he insists it was the right decision to move to Blackrock College for the final year of his education.

"You definitely have a big advantage when you're in one of the bigger schools," he said.

"Being honest, I moved solely for rugby reasons. I found it tougher to make representative teams playing in a smaller school like Pres. But, obviously, the benefit of a good education came with the school.

"I really wanted to make a push with rugby and try and get into the Leinster academy.

"I enjoyed my time in Pres, but it was at some stage in fifth year when I decided it was best for me to leave."

Moving to Leinster's most successful Senior Cup school for rugby reasons comes with its own pressures, but given its past pupils include the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen, Victor Costello and Luke Fitzgerald – Harris-Wright (25) knew that more opportunities were sure to come his way.

His cup career, however, isn't one that is covered in glory. He was a major part of the Pres side that, against all the odds, reached the Junior Cup final in 2004, but were beaten by Blackrock.

After making the move from Bray, Blackrock were installed as one of the firm favourites for the 2007 Senior Cup. But a quarter-final replay defeat against Kilkenny College put a quick end to his hopes of winning a schools medal.

With Ian Madigan and Eoin Sheriff, who is currently playing for Saracens, included in the Blackrock side, they failed to live up to their potential.

"It was a shock to lose. We had a lot of really talented players.

"We ended up losing to Kilkenny in a replay, so we knew how tough they were from the first game. But we weren't playing anything near our best rugby," he admitted.

With his cup dreams dashed before Blackrock's campaign ever really got going, at no point did Harris-Wright question his decision to change schools.

He was selected for the Ireland U-19s shortly after which, in his own words, "made the move to Blackrock worthwhile."

"When I went to Blackrock, it became a bit easier to get noticed if I'm being honest. You're being seen regularly and people are taking note a lot more than they might have done when I was playing for Pres.

"Moving schools definitely had a big help in getting me to where I am now."

The hooker has since played at the U-20 World Cup and has won a Heineken Cup medal with Leinster.

After a year in the Championship with Bristol, he now finds himself playing regular rugby with Connacht but admits he never envisaged ending up out West.

"When you're from Leinster and you grow up supporting them, you can't imagine playing for anyone else. But in fairness, I had my time there.

"I was delighted to come to Galway when the opportunity came about. I had never been here before, but it's a great place to live and a great team to play for."

Connacht have struggled for consistency under Pat Lam, despite enjoying arguably the club's greatest ever victory against Toulouse last December. Harris-Wright came on as an early second-half substitute and put in an excellent shift against one of the most formidable packs in European rugby.

Reflecting on his career highlight to date, the 25-year-old admits he finds it difficult to chose between Connacht's achievement at the Stade Ernest Wallon and winning a Heineken Cup medal with Leinster.

"To beat a team like Toulouse in France was huge. It was definitely a career highlight for me. People hadn't really given us a chance, so it was unbelievable.

"It was great at the time but afterwards we talked about backing it up. It wasn't acceptable to go out the next week and put in a below-par performance.

"On the other hand, it's hard to beat the Heineken Cup as a competition. So, to get a winners' medal was really special and it's something I'd aspire to do again.

"It was great to be involved in that 2011 Leinster side. But, from an individual game point of view, I had a lot more involvement in the Toulouse clash, so that would be right up there.

"It's a lot more satisfying when you have a bigger part to play."

Having such an attitude is admirable, but it is clear from speaking with Harris-Wright that a realistic outlook is ingrained in his mentality since his time at Presentation College.

Having made 10 appearances for Ireland U-20s as well as six for the U-19s, earning a full cap is Harris-Wright's ultimate goal. But like his schooldays, he knows that won't happen overnight.

"It's a huge ambition of mine. But I think it's one step at a time. My first aim would be to possibly play for the Wolfhounds.

"If I'm playing well for Connacht then, hopefully, I will be recognised by the national coaches and I might get a chance to fulfill a life long dream."

Schools rugby is a major platform to further success within the rugby-playing world. It is not the be-all and end-all, but without it, a player is facing an uphill battle.

Harris-Wright's story is evidence of that, but he has also proven that hard work and ambition from a young age is just as important.

Irish Independent

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