By Matt Styles
When speaking to Fitz Harding back in August, he had just signed professional terms with Bristol Bears off the back of an historic season with DURFC, winning the BUCS Super Rugby league title for the first time in its new format.
Nine months on, the back-rower has committed his immediate future to the Bears having penned a long-term senior contract with the club in March. This came having earned himself a string of starting appearances in Pat Lam’s side – who are currently cruising at the top of the Gallagher Premiership – earlier than perhaps expected.
Harding justified his new deal by making history five days later: scoring not just his first professional try but also the division’s 15,000th in a narrow 35-33 win against Harlequins.
“Scoring a try is always something that I’ll remember for a long time,” he reflected. “I might not get many as a back-rower but it was great to get under the sticks. It’s not something that will define my career shall we say, but it’s always nice to break the whitewash.”
Now in a changing room with the likes of Steven Luatua and Ben Earl, the 22-year-old likes to think he is beginning to assimilate the expectations of professional rugby and add real value to the team effort within a professional context.
Beyond embracing the ethos of the club, Harding attributes his positive impact to a conscious effort to improve various elements of his game: namely his set-piece, breakdown, and general defence work.
“The last-minute wins at Saints and Quins were especially good, but that moment against Saints was a highlight for me because I showed myself and the players around me what I can do and that I can contribute to this team. Obviously, there are loads of other ways you can do that but that was really special for me.
“Each area of my game has a long way to go to improve I think I have improved in lots of those areas and I’m hoping to keep continuing to do that.”
Though Bristol’s style of play and heavy emphasis on ‘basic skills’ naturally suits Fitz, one of the biggest challenges has been adapting the level of detail that is required at the top level.
While at times missing the more liberating aspects of a University setting, he is relishing the added expectation of getting every detail right and launching himself into ‘challenging situations’ for the sole aim of improving his game.
“I think I’m getting to grips with having detail to everything I do.
“Detail is the thing that separates good players from great players, but I have become more comfortable with putting pressure on myself to get those details right.”
When first stepping foot in Ashton Gate Harding described it to us as a ‘surreal’ experience, yet the reality is well and truly beginning to kick in for the former Hatfield student, who at the very start of his University career slipped through the net and found himself in the IV’s.
Plaudits have since been flooding in for Harding, whether it’s been at University or with Bristol, and he is really beginning to make a name for himself ‘ahead of schedule’. Handling the pressure and this new reality is something that he has had to quickly deal with, with the return of fans no doubt a daunting yet enthralling prospect for the youngster.
“It is pretty surreal in some respects, especially getting some game time alongside the best players. I still have to pinch myself when I’m playing alongside some of these players, but to some extent, it has sunk in. I’m trying to absorb information from these top players and I’m really enjoying it.
“I think pressure and expectation are ideas that come hand in hand in professional sport, so it’s something I’ll be exposed to a lot more in my career whether it’s in training or in games. For me it’s just focusing on my roles and what I can do during the week rather than focus on the big picture; if I can focus in on specific details that’s a good way to handle that expectation.”
The sky is the limit now for Harding who, along with the likes of Alex Dombrandt and Luke Northmore, act as a beacon of hope for any rugby players at University who possess even the faintest of aims to make it in the big time. For now, however, he will just continue learning, enjoying his rugby, and taking things one step at a time.
“I have said before I like to stay focused on the process. Obviously, every rugby player’s dream is to eventually play on that international stage but for me at the moment focusing on playing as well as I can for the Bears and getting more experience, and improving myself as a player. Then one day hopefully it will happen”
“The University game is growing a lot as a whole which is really helping lads, obviously my journey is useful for lads from Durham but if you look at some of the other lads Dombrandt and Northmore coming through university game to have good professional careers so would be good to see more lads in coming years.”
Image courtesy of Fitz Harding