Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

The Big Read: Tohu Harris the Kiwis' quiet achiever

New Zealand forward Tohu Harris. Photo / Getty
New Zealand forward Tohu Harris. Photo / Getty

Tohu Harris isn't the type of player that turns heads. He doesn't have a flashy sidestep, an eye-catching haircut or a smorgasbord of tattoos.

Harris, who will play his 13th test for the Kiwis against England on Sunday morning (NZT), is also quietly spoken, painfully modest and endearingly humble.

Harris might just be the league equivalent of "Ben [Smith] from Accounts" - maybe "Tohu from the mail room". Like Smith, it has taken a few years for those outside the coaching and playing group to appreciate his value. And aside from his physique and extraordinary aerobic capacity, he could easily be mistaken for an everyday New Zealander.

That, one suspects, is how he likes it, but it's far from the truth. Harris' rise has been quite remarkable.

He is established as a regular at the Storm - no mean feat for a 24-year-old - and has become almost indispensable for his country. He played every minute of every match on last year's tour of England, backing up similar 80 minute performances in the last two Anzac tests.

Harris has also got a unique skill set; not many 1.95m, 112kg backrowers can say they have started a test match against the Kangaroos at No6 (after that game, in 2014, Australian captain Cameron Smith referred to Harris as the 'world's biggest five eight') and he is also a back-up goal kicking option at the Storm.

Harris has become the prototype of a modern league player - mentally and physically tough - but his journey to the 13-man code was an unlikely one.

Growing up in Hastings, there weren't many league options, so Harris played 1st XV and club rugby, with an occasional league hit-out at the end of the season.

"We played union all winter, then after that the league season starts", said Harris. "They get all their numbers from rugby teams."

But Harris was spotted by former Kiwi David Lomax, who drafted him into the Central Falcon youth side (in the old Bartercard Cup competition).

At the end of the 2008 season, Lomax heard about an open trial the Storm were holding in Wellington and invited Harris down to the capital.

"There were about 120 kids and a whole lot of talented guys from all over the Wellington region," said Harris. "I didn't know what to expect."

After several training sessions and games, Storm coach Craig Bellamy selected two young hopefuls from the throng of teenagers. One was the tall kid from the East Coast, the other All Black halfback TJ Perenara.

"I was lucky," said Harris. "I was lucky to find out about the camp and then to be chosen. It's one of those things but who knows how things could have turned out otherwise."

Harris went to Melbourne as a 17-year-old in 2010.

Many other New Zealand teenage league prospects have failed to adjust to life in the big Australian cities, and the Storm's infamously brutal pre-season camps added another layer of challenge.

But Harris thrived. He scored 25 tries in 49 games for the Storm's Under-20 side between 2010 and 2012, and made his first grade debut in round one of the 2013 season, after earlier playing in the World Club Challenge victory over Leeds. By May he was an international, featuring in the Kiwis 32-12 Anzac test loss to the Kangaroos.

He was Storm's rookie of the year in 2013, before being named in the Kiwis World Cup squad. Then followed Sonny-Bill Williams' dramatic U-turn, and Harris's cruel cull. It was big news at the time, but Harris quiet dignity over the unusual incident meant it didn't linger.

"I moved on pretty quickly," said Harris. "I was disappointed for a few days but it was out of my control. I didn't have to think too much about it."

Ironically, Harris has already carved a much greater legacy in the black and white V than Williams managed.

He has enjoyed three victories over Australia (for all his achievements, Williams was never part of a team that beat the Kangaroos) and has at least another two World Cups ahead of him.

Harris' quiet demeanour has become legendary in the Kiwis environment. One of his teammates joked on last year's tour of England that everybody wanted to room with Harris, because "it was like he wasn't there".

Former coach Stephen Kearney also used to enjoy some banter with Harris, often asking at the end of an address or a team meeting if Storm back rower had anything to add. He invariably didn't.

But that's changing. Harris is part of the emerging leaders group at the Storm, and has soaked up plenty from the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.

"You learn so much from watching those guys," said Harris.

"How they prepare, how they deal with situations, how they address the team."

Harris is also becoming a leader in the Kiwis environment, and sets a high standard on the training field.

Despite their world No1 ranking, the Kiwis look to be outsiders heading into this tournament, with a revived Kangaroos team firing under new coach Mal Meninga and England, with Wayne Bennett in their camp, on home soil.

The Kiwis have also won only one of the last five encounters with their two great rivals (0-2 vs Australia, 1-2 vs England) but Harris downplays any talk about being underdogs.

"I don't really think about who is favourites or not," said Harris. "Every game at international level is going to be tough. You have to make sure you prepare well and do anything to be ready. Both [Australia and England] have a great squad of players and we have to be ready for that challenge."

The Kiwis will also have to do without the immense presence of Simon Mannering (injured), with Harris and Storm team mate Kevin Proctor expected to pick up the defensive slack, as they did in the 26-6 defeat in Perth.

The outcome of Sunday's contest is hard to pick.

New Zealand must be slight outsiders, with the home crowd at Huddersfield giving England a vital boost, but the Kiwis, especially their pack, are due a good performance.

There are so many other intangibles but only one thing is certain; as he always does, "Tohu from the mailroom" will deliver.

- NZ Herald

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