Jason Harris-Wright ’s winding road to Connacht
From Bray to Galway, via Blackrock and Bristol, young forward’s move to the frontrow was the most significant journey of all
Jason Harris-Wright in action for his first school, Presentation College, Bray in the Leinster Schools Junior Cup final against Blackrock College in 2004. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Jason Harris-Wright would ultimately never claim Leinster Schools Cup final glory with Blackrock College after his move from Pres Bray. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Jason Harris-Wright did, however, go on to savour Heineken Cup final success with Leinster in the 2011 decider against Northampton, and here he celebrates at the final whistle with Shane Horgan, right, and Nathan Hines. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jason Harris-Wright in action for his current employers, Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Playing at number eight, Jason Harris-Wright tasted Leinster Schools Senior Cup quarter-final disappointment in 2007 against Kilkenny. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
“Then came a Harris-Wright cameo. The number eight swatted off two would-be tacklers before stepping inside – it seemed like the whole covering Blackrock pack was required to drag him down.”
The Irish Times, 2004.
Watching schools rugby from 2004 to 2007, one squat, powerful kid couldn’t but be written about. For instance, in 2006 it was “the sheer persistence of a Pres pack led by ferocious backrowers Jason Harris-Wright and John Downey denied St Michael’s a comfortable afternoon”.
Later, we – the editorial we, that is – added: “Again, it was Harris-Wright, while drawing three tacklers, who delivered the perfect offload” leading to a consolation try in yet another brave defeat by Pres, Bray.
That St Michael’s side, which included Leinster centre Noel Reid, eventually lost the final to Luke Fitzgerald’s Blackrock.
The following September Harris-Wright made his first big leap, leaving Pres to finish his education at Blackrock College. “I immediately noticed the amount they trained,” the Connacht hooker remembers.
“Pres was a pretty standard rugby school in terms of the amount they trained, whereas in Blackrock I was surprised they trained as much as a professional set-up. Obviously you are a lot younger and not being paid for it, so it is tough while you are trying to study but that was the main difference.”
The motivation was always been to get to where he is now.
Or a little further. Now 25, the Wicklow man’s route into and through professionalism is almost nomadic. For now he has settled in Galway, at least until the summer of 2015.
It all started in Bray with Harris-Wright driving his local school into the 2004 Leinster Junior Cup final, where they lost 21-5 to Blackrock. That day he came into direct contact, or more accurately they him, with other future professionals Ian Madigan and Leicester winger Niall Morris.
Eventually the feeling of “if you can’t beat them join them”, allied by a belief that it would open a pathway to representative rugby, prompted the change.
“We had a good team at JCT in Pres but [going to Blackrock] was to get more exposure. As much as people might say otherwise, I think it is definitely harder to make representative teams from a school like Pres then it is from a Blackrock. You nearly have to do more every time you play. That was my main reason, to get noticed, and play representative at underage.”
Leinster duly picked him. However, the plan to win the cup never materialised as Kilkenny produced one of the biggest shocks in the history of schools rugby when beating Blackrock in the 2007 replayed quarter-final.
Harris-Wright has developed a mature perspective on that experience.
“It wasn’t one of my best days ever. In school it is a lot more important to you. Schools cup rugby is everything but when you get a bit older you realise it is not the be all and end all.
“Obviously I would have liked to win a schools cup but ultimately I think there are more important things for my career than a schools cup, looking back now.
“I always wanted to be a professional rugby player, so I’m delighted I progressed through the academies and into a senior set up.”
Ten caps for Ireland under-20s were gathered along the way and a switch to hooker, slowed by Blackrock keeping him at number eight.
In Ireland, still, the best forwards – Clongowes’ Byrne twins being a welcome exception – tend to end up in the backrow.
“It’s results-based in Ireland at schools level. Teams want to win so they play their players where best for the team, but it could potentially block player progression.”
At Leinster, Joe Schmidt addressed the backlog of backrowers by moving former Clongowes flanker Jordan Coghlan to inside centre, where he regularly lines out for Leinster A. Another, Harrison Brewer, was switched from backrow to midfield when still in Terenure College and has progressed into the Ireland under-20s squad.
“But I probably added a bit to my game playing in the backrow at a decent level,” Harris-Wrigh concedes. “I even played backrow at the under-19s world cup but from talking to coaches, I was never going to be a backrow with my height.
“Hooker was the way to go so when I got into the Greystones senior team and the Irish under-20s I had to give it a good go.
“I suppose the main difficulty is the throwing. You mightn’t be doing that for as long as other hookers. Getting a handle on that, working hard at it, it’s a tough enough skill to master.”
Life as a professional hasn’t been plain sailing for Harris-Wright.
A contributor off the bench in the epic 2011 Heineken Cup final victory over Northampton, the arrival of Seán Cronin from Connacht to compete with Richardt Strauss was enough of a hint about his place in the pecking order.
So he took another leap, joining Bristol, where he played just 11 times in the 20011/12 season before an offer came to sign for Connacht.
Still, the English club outlet has increasingly become an option for Irish players struggling to break into their provincial team.
“I was at the stage of my career that I was ready to play and talking to the coaches in Leinster they felt I had developed enough to get some game time so that was the reason I went abroad. I knew with the quality of hookers that were there I wouldn’t get much game time. It has ended up with me in Galway so I’m happy enough about that.”