By Greg Pritchard
Melbourne forwards coach David Kidwell says he knew Tohu Harris was something special the first time he coached against him in the under-20s competition.
That was in 2010, when Kidwell was coaching South Sydney’s under-20s side and Harris was in his first year of under-20s with the Storm.
Fast-forward to this year and Harris is powering through the early stages of his debut season of first grade with Melbourne. He even made his Test debut for New Zealand against Australia last month, coming off the interchange bench.
“He came on in that under-20s game and started doing things straight away,” Kidwell recalled. “I thought: ‘Who is this kid?’ I immediately thought he could really play.”
The search for quality players knows no bounds. Once a year, the Storm run a training camp in Wellington, New Zealand, and in 2009 they spotted Harris there.
“Tohu was offered a scholarship with us and came across for the 2010 season,” Storm general manager Frank Ponissi told NRL.com. (Harris played in the under-20s in 2010 and ’11, and last year he split his time between the under-20s and NSW Cup.)
“He was training with our full squad a lot of the time last year as well. We expected him to really come on as a player this year, and he’s doing that.”
Harris will again start at lock for the Storm when they take on Canberra at AAMI Park on Saturday night. The Raiders have won the past two times they played the Storm at this venue, but the unbeaten premiers will start hot favourites.
The 21-year-old, who splits his time between playing on the edge or as one of the “middle three”, is racking up plenty of minutes of game time, metres made and tackles.
Against the Dragons he played for 59 minutes and made 52 metres and 24 tackles; against the Cowboys it was 80, 123 and 31; the Bulldogs 67, 109 and 23; the Broncos 65, 99 and 29; the Tigers 59, 89 and 35; the Rabbitohs 44, 52 and 29; and the Warriors 57, 116 and 31.
Harris (whose Christian name is pronounced ‘Taw-hoo’) has plenty of skill as well, but is not rushing to push that part of his game out as he gets used to the running and tackling aspects at this level first. He has two offloads and one line-break so far this season.
“Tohu’s got a lot going for him,” Kidwell said. “He was earmarked for first grade going back a fair way. Craig (Bellamy, the Storm coach) sees a lot in him. He’s got a pretty good engine, and he can take a hit, but it’s not just about the physical and endurance side of things with him.
“He’s got really good footwork and he can offload. He is working hard on all the little things the coaching staff have set him to do, so full credit to him.”
Harris is having a big year of impressive firsts for a player so young and inexperienced. His first game in first grade was in the World Club Challenge in England in February, when Melbourne beat Leeds Rhinos. His father made the trip from New Zealand to present him with his jumper for that match.
His Test debut came after he had been named 18th man and was rushed into the side when New Zealand captain Simon Mannering had to withdraw on the day of the game with a calf injury.
And now he’s a regular starter in a Storm side that is on a 15-game winning streak, having backed up eight straight wins to finish last season with seven straight to kick off 2013.
“Tohu doesn’t say much, but he’s a very good listener,” former Kiwi star Kidwell said. “I sit down with him and go through certain things to do with his game, and he goes away and acts on it. He’s doing a great job, both on the edge and in the middle three.
“You can tell from the way he plays that he’s got a great footy brain. He’s pretty quiet around here at the moment, but he’s only young. Once he starts growing in confidence he’ll come out of his shell.”
Ponissi said Harris was contracted to the club until the end of next season, and that the Storm would be seeking to extend that deal “sooner, rather than later”. As you’d expect.