NOTHING WOODEN ABOUT THE PLANK

4 November 2001

He is best remembered for his spat with Austin Healey on the Lions tour, but there is more to Justin Harrison than meets the eye

At 6ft 8in Justin Harrison may be as long as one, but he certainly isn’t as thick as one – a plank that is. And since he is about to complete a degree majoring in sports marketing he probably ought to copyright “The Plank” epithet so famously placed on him by England’s Austin Healey.

Harrison was in Madrid with the Wallabies this week. On the field he was a feisty, scrum-capped mobile crane as the gallant, tousle-haired Spanish team were put to a predictable 92-10 slaughter. Off the pitch he’s a stooping, slightly shy, quite serious, ginger-stubbled, 27-year-old almost disappointingly desperate to avoid getting sucked into controversy as Healey’s publishers plug their book and Austin’s jibes, such as “he seems a nightmare of a fella”, are bandied around.

“As far as I am concerned,” Harrison says carefully about the two tour matches in which he clashed with Healey, “we were just two guys trying to do the best for our team. Austin is a terrific player who obviously speaks his mind and sometimes it gets him into trouble and sometimes it doesn’t. When I meet him, I will greet him and be cordial and we will probably have a chat about whatever has happened. But at the moment I am not thinking about him at all. I am just trying to make the team.”

Assessing performers in repose rather than in action is one of the abiding, if often fruitless, fascinations in sport. An earlier life spent with four-legged (and genuinely dumb) athletes gave me the contrast between the gentle nuzzling thoroughbred whose ears you could tickle in the box and the half-ton fireball that would pull your arms out of their sockets on the track.

Now this intelligent, reserved young man rubbing his knee beneath the table had to be converted into the rumbling, immensely committed rugby presence remembered not just against Healey in those two tour matches but in the most crucial furnace of all; Harrison’s Test debut at Sydney’s Stadium Australia, the deciding Test of the series.

The talk goes back to early days when for five years he lived in aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territories with his teacher father and nurse mother. When most of his Wallabies’ contemporaries, not to give one last mention to Mr Healey, were already into rugby skills, the youthful Harrison was playing improvised Aussie Rules Football with the aboriginal kids at places such as Yuendumu, three hours north-west of Alice Springs. To get that child into the towering figure who in his first Test line-out leapt up some 30 feet towards the Sydney skyline and stole the ball from Martin Johnson is hard not just for the outsider, but for Harrison too.

“Formative years,” says Harrison, “wonderful years but I had no image of rugby at all. Even when my father moved down to Sydney and I joined him to go to Newman High School it never crossed my mind. I played a bit of tennis and basketball, my hand-eye co-ordination was quite good, but I never thought about it until I went up to read marine biology at the Southern Cross University at Lismore. It was a 13-hour drive up from Sydney, I didn’t know anyone so I joined the rugby club just to make friends.”

So only seven years ago Harrison was on the end of one of the oldest dialogues in rugby initiation. “Hi,” they say greedily as the bean pole walks in for his free beer, “you’re in the second row.” On the bus two days and a hangover later he asks what happens in the second row. “Stand four back in the line,” comes the answer. “Catch the ball and give it to us.” Harrison shakes his long, hound-like head in mock amusement. “That’s still about the size of it.”

But it worked. Starting with no aspirations he got promoted in mid-season from Lismore’s “Baby Rats” to their “Gold Rats” first team and to his unbelievable delight they took the grand final against Ballina at the Oaks Oval in front of 4,500 people. “It felt like the World Cup,” he says and in a very real sense it set him on the path towards one. For in the close season the Ballina coach, Chris Hickey, moved to Tuggeranong Vikings in Canberra and persuaded Harrison to join him and apply for a scholarship at the nearby Australian Institute of Sport. Harrison the rugby player was on his way.

Within a year the late starter had won another grand final with the Vikings and had got into the Australian under-21 team with the likes of Graeme Bond and Toutai Kefu. It was a momentous opening, but from there to this week, where he attempts to inherit the legendary jumping mantle of retired captain John Eales, which has not been easy. Indeed, exactly a year ago he looked as if the whole thing was over.

By then Harrison had applied himself assiduously enough to increase his body weight from a willowy 14½ stone to a more powerful 17 stone and he had forced his way into the ACT Brumbies side who had lost the Super 12 final to Canterbury by just one point. But something was already amiss with his right arm in that game, a nerve had been damaged, the whole muscle pack atrophied, and in despair surgery was tried. “Suddenly,” Harrison said, “I was going from hoping to play for Australia to wondering whether I would play at all.”

Miraculously the recuperation went well enough for him to make the first Brumbies trial in February. With Dave Giffin he had, for a time, to take on responsibilities of senior lock and under current tour manager Eddie Jones’s inspiration, he and the team flourished through to land the Super 12 final against the Natal Sharks and push Harrison into the Wallabies team.

“I felt so proud, not just for myself, but for all my family, and all those who had kept faith with me,” he says with eloquent sincerity. He is a young man who should have a great future in the wider world, but for the present he needs to be a rugby player.

You ask him first about the moment early in that debut Test when he hassles Martin Johnson enough for the mighty “Johnno” to seize the young upstart by the throat. “I respect him hugely,” says Harrison, still the stooping diplomat, but then the voice loosens and deepens as he lets the wild man out.

“Martin is a tremendous leader in his position,” he says, a smile beginning to break, “but it just happens to be my position. That square-up was just a bit of `let’s see how we are going to play together’.”

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