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'In pro rugby, you're in a bit of a bubble. It's nice to come out of it for a while'

Jason Harris-Wright will look to help Clontarf to AIL glory before joining Pat Lam at Bristol.

SEVERAL OF THE players in action at the Aviva Stadium in next Sunday’s Ulster Bank League Division 1A final will have professional experience, but Clontarf’s Jason Harris-Wright will be the only one who has a Heineken Cup winner’s medal.

The dynamic hooker has been part of Tarf’s front row since returning to Dublin at Christmas following a four-month stint with London Irish in the English Championship.

Jason Harris-Wright

This summer, the 28-year-old will join with Pat Lam – his former coach at Connacht – in Bristol. The move will also see Harris-Wright linking up with his ex-Leinster team-mate Ian Madigan, as Bristol look to bounce back into the Premiership.

It’s an exciting next step in Harris-Wright’s professional career but before that, he wants to end his return to Clontarf with an AIL medal, with Cork Con standing in the Dublin club’s way again this season.

“It’s been really enjoyable with Clontarf,” says Harris-Wright. “I got onto [Clontarf coach] Andy Wood when I was coming back from London and just approached him about playing and trying to do some coaching.

“I’ve settled in well and it’s a really good bunch of lads. Thankfully, after Christmas, we’ve been doing better and things seem to be coming together nicely for next weekend.”

Harris-Wright has been more accustomed to Pro12, Champions Cup and Challenge Cup rugby in recent seasons but has been thankful for the opportunity to stay match fit with Clontarf over the course of the second half of the campaign before joining Bristol.

Originally a Greystones club man – he first played rugby there at the age of five – Harris-Wright first experienced the AIL with Clontarf after leaving Blackrock College and says that the quality in the league is more concentrated at the top now.

“When I came out of school I was obviously less developed, but I would have thought that across the board it was probably a higher standard then when it was just Division 1, Division 2, and so on.

“But in saying that, there are a couple of teams now that I think are quite a bit above the other teams. It’s not as widely challenged, I think there are a couple of teams who are way above the rest.

“That handful of teams, it’s pretty physical and attritional. Everyone thinks that when the pro lads go back it’s going to be a walk in the park but it’s not really like that. It’s tough.”

Harris-Wright has had injury troubles during his career, particularly in his final season and a half with Connacht, but the run of back-to-back games with Tarf, regularly finishing out 80 minutes, has been important for him.

Jason Harris-Wright

He is taking advantage of his stint at home to coach in Tarf and with Adrian Flavin at Castleknock College, working through his Level 2 coaching badge as he eyes up a future in rugby after his playing days.

“Not that I’d want to be out of pro rugby for too long, but it’s been good to open my eyes,” says Harris-Wright of this period back home. “In professional rugby, you can get into a bit of a bubble sometimes, it’s very regimental in what you’re doing and it’s very familiar.

“It’s nice to come out of it for a while and see different aspects of life, little things like seeing my mates from home and things I might not have got to do as much.”

Having left Connacht last summer, Harris-Wright joined London Irish in the Championship on a three-month injury cover contract that ended up being extended by another month.

Despite his positive impression, London Irish had already contracted other players to the end of the current season so Harris-Wright headed home, turning down a handful of other short-term options overseas.

But he didn’t have to ponder his future, as he had already agreed to join Lam in Bristol.

“Pat rang me in December so I knew early enough that I would be going to Bristol. It was nice to know that was ahead. It was funny because I left Connacht last year, so a few people were surprised, but I got on well with Pat.

“Initially, I thought he was phoning me about my brother because my brother is in Bristol as an S&C coach. Pat made me an offer and I was delighted.

“[Assistant coach] Conor McPhillips and [head of performance] Paul Bunce are going over from Connacht as well, so it will be nice to have that familiarity.”

Knowing Lam’s game plan and philosophy intimately after three seasons working under him at Connacht will be useful for Harris-Wright, as other players face something totally new.

Pat Lam and Jason Harris-Wright

Harris-Wright initially made an impression in rugby circles as a barrelling back row with Presentation College, Bray.

He moved to Blackrock for sixth year, before advancing onto the Ireland U19 team, still as a back row. Within a year, he was playing hooker, however, after taking on the advice of Leinster’s academy set-up.

“I was a bit reluctant early on. It was probably Richie Murphy and Collie McEntee who were in the academy at the time. They kept saying to me that I wasn’t tall enough – which is probably the case!” continues 5’10″ Harris-Wright.

“They thought I’d do well at hooker and that my height would be a disadvantage as a back row. I really liked the back row so I was really reluctant but I trusted that they knew what they were talking about. I took the plunge around 20s time.”

Harris-Wright joined Leinster’s full academy but naturally found the transition into the front row difficult, particularly at lineout time.

“Early on, it was tough,” recalls Harris-Wright of learning to throw. “You’d have a lot of bad days. The biggest thing for me was that I was working hard at it but I kept thinking I should change things, put my foot somewhere else, change my technique.

“I kept doing that and then nothing seemed to be working. The big breakthrough was when I was in Leinster and Greg Feek was there. I did a lot of work with him.

“He changed my style and I stuck with it then. There were obviously small changes over time but that was definitely the biggest breakthrough and it was the first time I got to a good level of throwing. I had to work hard over the years.”

His senior debut arrived in the second half of the 2009/10 season and the following campaign saw him play back-up to Richardt Strauss. There were three Heineken Cup appearances, including a handful of minutes late on in the remarkable 2011 final comeback victory over Northampton.

Harris-Wright’s future with Leinster looked rosy but then Joe Schmidt signed Sean Cronin from Connacht and he was forced to look elsewhere.

Jonathan Sexton is replaced by Jason Harris-Wright

“Joe basically said I was playing well and I was ready to play but I’d ultimately be third-choice with Sean signing. I didn’t want to just stay after getting that taste of playing.”

Midway through the 2011/12 season, an opportunity to join Bristol – in the Championship at that point – arose and Harris-Wright jumped at it, moving away from home for the first time.

He made more than 10 appearances and did enough to convince Connacht to sign him for the following season.

Despite the unsatisfactory end to his time with Leinster, Harris-Wright still leans on the lessons he learned during his time working alongside that world-class squad.

“You’re quite lucky to be thrown in with some of the best players to ever play the game and great coaches. It definitely set the standards really high so if you go somewhere else you know what’s acceptable and what’s necessary to succeed.

“You can pull up standards and see when something is not good enough. I was young in Leinster and didn’t have a lot to say, just took it on board how the senior lads would talk, act, how professional they’d be. It made a big impact on me.”

Connacht proved to be a perfect fit for the hooker after the short-term stay at Bristol, as he made 16 starts in his first season with the province and then 17 in the 2013/14 campaign.

But then came a cruel bout of injury travails as a shoulder dislocation was followed swiftly by a torn cruciate ligament.

“I was there for four years and it was pretty much split right in the middle. Those early years were great, playing a lot and seeing big improvements in my game. It was frustrating to get the back-to-back big injuries, that was tough to take.

“It probably made me think a bit more outside rugby, when you’re injured and have time. I did an online degree in business management and an internship that I wouldn’t have done if it had been plain sailing. I didn’t want the injuries but it made me do a few other things which I’m grateful I did.”

Harris-Wright is happy to have options with his business qualification and his plans to move into coaching eventually, but at just 28 he has plenty more left to do in his playing career.

Jason Harris-Wright

Linking up with his older brother, Jonathan, in Bristol next season will be a first, even if he has leant on his expertise recently.

“He’s been a big help to me. Since Christmas, I’ve been training full-time myself and he’s been programming for me, so that’s been handy to have that to keep on top of professional training. I haven’t worked with him directly before, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

And on the pitch alongside Madigan, Harris-Wright is keen to be part of Bristol’s rise. The hooker is confident that Lam will help the club to make a big impression.

“Pat is very passionate about what he does. He’s very organised and he’s a top-class coach. It’s really exciting. Bristol is a really good club and bringing Pat in will only boost it.

“With the resources Bristol have and it’s a huge rugby city as it is, they’ve really good fans, so I think it will be great. It’s exciting for me going over knowing what he can bring.”

But first, a big day out with Clontarf as they look for back-to-back titles.

- This article was updated at 7.25pm on 1 May to correct the day of the Division 1A final from Saturday to Sunday.

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Murray Kinsella

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