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Unlocking Justin Harrison

In the first of a two-part feature, former Wallaby lock Justin Harrison opens his heart to Rugby Correspondent Gavin Mairs about his tumultuous three years at Ulster

By Gavin Mairs

As Justin Harrison's career with Ulster draws to a close, his three years at Ravenhill remain as much an enigma as the man himself.

His trailblazing first season with the province was franked with the enduring image of the 34-times capped Wallaby lock kissing the Celtic League trophy.

His influential role in driving Mark McCall's side to Ulster's first piece of significant silverware since the 1999 European Cup triumph and his abrasive and committed style elevated the former ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs star to cult status among the Ravenhill faithful.

Having been crowned the Ulster Rugby Personality of the Year Award, he captained the side in the injury-enforced absence of Simon Best for the thrilling campaign finale against the Neath/Swansea Ospreys and remained the leader for the start of the next season which began in sensational fashion with the romp over Toulouse at Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup in October 2006.

Yet behind the scenes, Harrison's personal life was in turmoil following the separation from his wife Janneke, who had returned to Sydney that summer.

As Ulster's form fell away dramatically in the second half of the season, so too did Harrison's.

His image as a world-class lock, who had once stolen a crucial line-out ball from in front of the nose of British and Irish Lions captain Martin Johnson in the series-defining line-out on his debut for the Wallabies, quickly began to lose its sheen.

He could still be found at the centre of tussles at the breakdown, but it increasingly looked like a show with no punch. Given his status and his considerable salary, the supporters wanted more.

It is a criticism Harrison takes squarely on the chin as he reflects over his Ulster career ahead of what is set to be his final start for his adopted province against Glasgow at Ravenhill tomorrow (kick-off 3pm).

Although his on-field persona at times resembles a caricature of an Australian sports star, his brash, in-your-face sledging manner masks his complex character off it.

Harrison is no plank. He is sharp of mind, a first-rate communicator and even occasional philosopher, and the manner in which the breakdown of his marriage left him an emotional wreck reveals a sensitive streak for which loyalty and friendship are the keystones.

Deep down he knows that he hasn't achieved all that he had hoped for when he arrived from the Waratahs in the summer of 2005.

And although he may be bound for Bath next season, he would have preferred to stay at Ulster if an offer had been forthcoming, to help make amends both on the pitch and with his rugby knowledge and contacts off it.

"I wanted to stay but although there was initial interest in keeping me on, nothing came to fruition to I had to look elsewhere to secure my financial future," said Harrison, who hopes to move into coaching at some stage, possibly even back at Ulster one day.

"It is a pity because I felt I still had something to offer Ulster Rugby both in playing terms and in intellectual property."

Harrison's bond with Ulster is deep. He owns property here and sees himself returning after his stint at Bath for the next five to 10 years. And he feels the jibes about him just being here to top up his pension are unfair.

"In Australia, once you get to 30, if the ARU don't think you can do a job for the national team then your provincial contract is cut," he added. "I wanted to keep playing at the top level and Ulster looked perfect as a team going places and hungry for input."

But why does he still care so much about a place where his rugby ambitions were not fulfilled save for that Celtic League win?

"For the simple reason that I have been through such a terrible time personally when I was here," he added.

"I will always have family and friends to fall back on, but in the end I fell back on Ulster Rugby and the people.

"It wasn't as if I didn't have other opportunities. I could have gone home to Australia and played back there and maybe tried to reconcile my marriage. All of those things banged around my head.

"But in the end, my word and my integrity are more important to me than anything else.

"I was committed to Ulster Rugby for three years, and on a good contract - there is no question that I was getting very well paid - but I could have got paid well somewhere else.

"I wanted to make sure I left on the best possible circumstances and to have gone earlier would have been defeatist.

"And secondly, I had a genuine affinity for the environment of Ulster and the people of Ulster - although I wince constantly about the weather! But then so does every Ulsterman!

"I felt it would not be fair to Ulster to invest passion, interest and money in me for a small amount of time and not get all of the resources out of me that I had to offer.

"I wanted to be one of the top second rowers in the Heineken Cup and Magners League but also I wanted to offer all the intellectual property that I could - whether it was useful or not.

"Initially it was called upon but when things started dropping a bit, channels were closed and communications were shut down a little. That was enormously frustrating."

Harrison admits that his emotional torment at the start of his second season greatly hindered his role as captain in the injury-enforced absence of Simon Best, as well as his general form.

"I started that season as captain and that was a huge honour but also very difficult for me," he added. "I was too proud to not accept it and didn't want to give the impression of a lack of commitment if I didn't accept it. But in the end I should have said no because I was an emotional wreck and couldn't do it justice.

"Up until then my career had been on the up each year. I can speak about it now but at the time I was a beaten man, there was no doubt about it.

"I have a handful of true friends who I will carry to my grave and if you have more than five, you've got too many probably.

"There is no doubt there is a place in that hand for some people that I have met here, who have helped me through what I hope was the darkest time of my life. I just don't know whether I could get through it again.

"This is not a violin story but it was the worst time of my life and Ulster Rugby carried me through those six months because of their undying support and understanding of my circumstances."

MONDAY: What went wrong with Ulster and what needs to be done to fix it?

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