Time moves fast in the world of professional rugby. Do you remember when Mike Harris booted the game-winning penalty goal for the Wallabies against Wales?
That was seven years ago this month. In case you have forgotten, here is the story.
Trailing 22-23 with the hooter already gone, Australia were awarded a penalty 30 metres out from the Wales line and five in from touch. With ice in his veins, Harris — who had only been on the pitch for a matter of minutes – stepped up and spliced the uprights with as sweet a strike as you’ll likely ever see. Series clinched. Thank you very much.
Four years on from that memorable nudge – with ten Wallabies caps and 64 Super Rugby appearances on his resume – Harris sought fresh horizons. After the 2016 Super Rugby season, he packed his suitcase and headed to France to play with Lyon in the Top 14.
Life there was busy for the former Reds and Rebels player. Top-tier French rugby teams play a full 26-round home-and-away season with European commitments stacked on top.
Harris had two successful campaigns with his club before shooting over to Tokyo about this time a year ago to join his current team, the Toshiba Brave Lupus.
Club rugby has a very unique set-up in Japan. Big corporations like Coca-Cola and Toyota own and run teams, which comprise a mixture of its employees and foreign players.
“It’s very much a company-operated game over here,” says Harris. “We train inside the gated Toshiba compound where around 4000-5000 people work. We don’t sign Japanese players on professional contracts, so the players work. They all have jobs within the company with bosses.”
With most Japanese players still working Monday to Friday you may assume that a sizeable gulf exists in the quality between the domestic and foreign players. However, Harris has seen enough of the locals to know that they should not be underestimated.
“The standard has lifted a lot here,” he insists. “They have a huge work ethic and will do something monotonously and practice and practice and practice until they get it right. Their skills are silky smooth and their understanding (of the game) is coming a long way too.”
Foreigners make up a small but critical part of every Japanese club. Harris is one of five at Toshiba, which is the maximum allowed. Only two of these can be fully-capped internationals, with former All Black Richard Kahui being the other one in Harris’ side.
Club play resumes this month as the nation’s best 24 teams compete in a brief five-round plus finals Japan League Cup. The next Top League season – an annual 16-team competition – has been pushed back until early 2020 due to the Rugby World Cup. Dan Carter’s Kobelco Steelers took the honours in the last campaign, which concluded back in January.
With just a maximum of seven games to be played in the upcoming League Cup, it will be a short season for Harris and his team-mates at the Brave Lupus (Latin for ‘Wolves’).
The Kiwi-born utility back was limited to just five games in the 2018/19 Top League due to a shoulder injury. After successful surgery and with a full pre-season under his belt, Harris is now primed and ready for his team’s first hit-out against the NTT Communications Shining Arcs on June 22.
Off the pitch, the 30-year-old is embracing his new lifestyle in the Land of the Rising Sun. Tokyo is the world’s most populated city with more than 38 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. The sheer size of the city has been an eye-opener for Harris.
“It is amazing. You can’t fathom how big it is,” he exclaims. “There’s a little golfing crew at our club plus a few foreigners from Suntory and the Canon Eagles. We hire a car and drive an hour and a half out to a course, and you’re still in Tokyo. It’s just nuts!”
On a typical day, Harris rides the one-kilometre journey to the Toshiba training compound on his pushbike. For longer distances he shoehorns onto the frequently-congested trains that service this colossal city.
It was on a carriage one day that Harris experienced first-hand the pleasing culture of honesty among the Japanese citizens.
“My wife left her brand new phone on the train at Shinjuku Station, which is one of the busiest in the world,” he recalls. “We went to the end of the line the next day (50-60km away) and, sure enough, it was there with nothing taken or touched.”
Harris will not be saying sayonara to Japan until at least the conclusion of the Top League season ending in May 2020. Beyond that he is keeping his options open.
The 30-year-old would consider a return to Super Rugby one day as a veteran player and “mentor” to youngsters, but will see how his body holds up.
As for now, Harris’s majestic place-kicking, renowned competitiveness and strong leadership will undoubtedly put Toshiba in contention for success in the League Cup, as well as next year’s Top League.
In the intervening months, he could be in no better place than the Japanese capital to enjoy the pageantry and drama of the sport’s greatest tournament, the Rugby World Cup.
Go well, Mike.
Mike Harris’s resume
• 10 Wallabies caps
• 5 Toshiba caps
• 43 Lyon Olympique Universitaire (Lyon) caps
• 20 Melbourne Rebels caps
• 44 Queensland Reds caps
• 1 Super Rugby title (2011)