By Matt Styles
When Fitz Harding started out in DURFC’s fourth team three years ago, he could never have envisaged this. After catching the eye in the university set-up, the former Hatfield student has now signed professional terms with Bristol Bears.
The flanker, who prides himself on his physicality and tireless work ethic, achieved great things with DURFC. In March, he helped his side win the BUCS Super Rugby league title for the first time in its new format, before being shortlisted for player of the season a month later.
Despite not being able to wrap up a historic league-cup double due to Covid-19, he leaves Durham without any sense of unfinished business.
“Obviously a part of us will always wonder whether we could have done the double – I think we could have done – but if someone had said we’d achieve what we did at the start of the season we would’ve bitten their arm off, so we’re not too disappointed.”
The history graduate has already joined up with his new teammates at Ashton Gate, with Bristol currently sitting second in the Gallagher Premiership, eight points behind Exeter Chiefs.
Harding outlined the jump from university to professional level, noting in particular the difference in intensity and the heightened level of detail and pressure in training sessions.
He extolled the virtues of BUCS Super Rugby for its emphasis on physicality and speed, but stresses that this is cranked up a notch in a professional setting. Acclimatising to his new surroundings has not been without its challenges, but Harding cannot wait to get stuck in.
“I’m ready to play whenever to be honest,” he tells Palatinate.
“My focus over the past few weeks has been making sure I know the system and the structure in detail. Being a young player I’m not sure how much of an opportunity I’ll get but I’ve always got to be prepared.”
“Training alongside world-class players and my idols has been a great experience, I’m enjoying every second of it. It’s a great opportunity for me personally and the new facility that they have here is pretty incredible.”
“It’s been pretty surreal”, Harding adds, though the road to success was not entirely straightforward for the back-rower. When he first arrived in Durham he slipped through the net and was assigned a place in the fourth team, but, as the old saying goes, the cream always rises to the top.
The massively over-qualified Harding soon rose through the ranks, though it wasn’t until his second year that his latent dream of playing professionally started to become a viable possibility. He began to really hit his stride, making appearances for the England Counties U20s and Bristol’s Premiership 7s side in addition to his university endeavours.
“I think I realised turning professional was a valid opportunity far later than most players, it was always in the back of my mind. I had a really good second year and played some really good rugby, and after that I thought it could be an opportunity and I became more set on that route.”
Harding was a late bloomer, but he is quick to stress that this shouldn’t be viewed as a negative thing.
“I wouldn’t say I was the consummate professional throughout my three years at Durham, but I’m pleased that I wasn’t. I think at university it is important to have a good balance, so when it was time to study I worked hard and did as much as I could do.”
“Rugby careers aren’t massively long so having a degree alongside your career is really important for life outside of rugby and in the future.”
“My two tips would be don’t take yourself too seriously, but always give 150%, and never be persuaded that you can’t do something. I think a lot of the lads feel like university represents the end of their university career, and I think you have to look at people like Alex Dombrandt who give you hope.”
Harding was also keen to stress the importance of BUCS Super Rugby, which is becoming an increasingly important pathway for players.
“It’s a great opportunity to get your name out there and get yourself in the shop window almost, and I think it’s going to grow and grow these next few years.”
When speaking with Harding his prevailing sentiment was to not obsess too much over what the future holds, to trust that things will work out organically, and crucially to enjoy university life while you can. For all the incredible sporting memories – namely winning the league title against Leeds Beckett and beating Exeter at Sandy Park – it was his time spent off the pitch that he treasures most.
“My best memories from Durham will be the socials and the time spent with the lads. Like I say don’t take yourself too seriously. University is a special, special opportunity to spend time with mates and have fun.”
His astronomical rise provides sufficient evidence that players can shatter the ceiling that supposedly separates elite university level and professional environments; Fitz joins the Alex Dombrandt’s and the Harry Randall’s who act as beacons of hope for budding rugby players at university.
Looking forward Harding’s new side will be looking to catch Exeter, and he fancies Bristol’s chances under Pat Lam.
“We’re competing for two trophies in ten weeks. We’ve got the Challenge Cup and the Premiership and there’s every chance of us winning both. We’ve got a really really strong squad, and with the direction we’re heading I think we’ve got a very good chance. We’ve just got to keep focused and take it game by game.”
Image: Fitz Harding