Sioned Harries: Player, exile, legend and teacher

Sioned Harries’ final Wales appearance came against Australia at WXV1 in New Zealand last November

Legend is a word thrown around all too lightly in sport these days, but if there is one player deserving of the tag, it is Sioned Harries.

A dynamic and athletic number eight, she has been a driving force in women’s rugby on and off the field during a 14-year international career.

Through the struggles of amateurism and inequality, to the changes in the Welsh management and on to the brighter days of professionalism, Harries has been a constant in the red shirt of Wales.

But at the age of 34 and with what would have been an 11th Women’s Six Nations looming, she has decided now is the time to retire, focus on family and friends and her teaching career at Ysgol Gymraeg Bro Dur.

It almost seems like the end of an era or the changing of the guard in Wales women’s rugby, with Elinor Snowsill, Siwan Lillicrap and Caryl Thomas all hanging up their boots in the last 12 months.

Shona Wakely (nee Powell-Hughes) is the only surviving member of the 2010 World Cup squad left in the current set-up.

The gamechangers have done their bit – and now it is time to step back.

The player

It is fair to assume Harries was one of those players the opposition feared on the team sheet.

A world-class back row on her day, Harries’ barnstorming runs became a trademark and of course, she was no stranger to the try line having scored 28 tries in 78 Test appearances.

Born in Aberystwyth and hailing from Aberaeron, Harries had rugby in the blood.

She began playing in school and represented Cardiff Metropolitan University before joining Whitland Ladies RFC, where she gained a formidable reputation at grassroots level.

She burst on to the international scene with the under-20s and such was her athleticism, Harries also represented Wales at sevens.

She was named in the 2010 Rugby World Cup squad and says making her debut against Australia in that tournament was a career high.

“My first cap, my first World Cup, that was a great experience with great players,” Harries said.

“I think one of the highlights that sticks out was the win in the 2017 World Cup against Ireland for the seventh place play-off to help up automatically qualify for the World Cup that’s just been (2022), that was a great moment.”

The exile

While Harries’ career has been full of memorable moments, the lows have also been well documented.

She spent two years in the international wilderness and that clearly was not due to form, as she was regularly putting in player-of-the-match performances for then club side Worcester Warriors.

Harries had been a key player under head coach Rowland Phillips, who left his role under a blanket of mystery ahead of the 2019 autumn internationals.

But the coaches who took over in the two years that followed overlooked Harries for the 2020 and 2021 Six Nations.

She was not the only one – Phillips’ daughter Carys received the same cold shoulder before making a spectacular return in the 2021 autumn series.

Harries later spoke about her mental health struggles during that time in exile, saying she suffered with depression and a loss of identity. She also said there was a lack of support from the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) at the time.

“It was just so hard, I wasn’t content back then with how things were dealt with, how I was treated,” Harries said.

“I did think about giving up and it was hard back then because it is your identity, but moving forward from that, I’m glad I did come back and I’m glad I had the support around me.”

The comeback queen

Harries came back on the scene when Ioan Cunningham took over as head coach and her Test rugby return was a moment of personal triumph.

She came off the bench to spark a memorable second-half comeback in the 2022 Six Nations victory against Scotland.

“There was a two-year period where I thought I’d never wear the red jersey again,” Harries recalled.

“The fact that I’ve come back and achieved what I have, especially in that first Test match against Scotland where I came off the bench and had the performance I did, I think that was a good two fingers up to those that were doubting me during that period.”

Harries’ return coincided with the rollout of the WRU’s first professional female contracts, which were initially given to 12 players and then rose to 32 last summer.

And while Harries welcomed their long-awaited arrival, they came at the wrong end of her career.

“When I started back in 2010, you wouldn’t even have imagined there would be professional contracts and the game would grow the way it has,” she said.

“I’ve been a part of where it started and how far it’s come as well, and it’s great to see the development in the game, but for me it’s wrong place, right time.

“If I was younger I would have bitten your hand off for a contract but there has always been that decision and that apprehension in the back of my mind that I’m going into the winter of my career and I had to focus on teaching.”

Sioned Harries coaching young girls
Sioned Harries took her girls’ side to the Principality finals day last year

It is testament to Harries’ unwavering commitment and boundless energy that she has managed to balance the full-time demands of the classroom, her weekend work as a rugby pundit and her Wales training for as long as she has.

“I do take pride in that, it does require a lot of hard work, determination and a lot more patience, but then again I also think it does take the energy from you and I’ve done it for as long as I can,” she said.

“It (retirement) just feels like the right time for me. Obviously as the game is developing with professional contracts, with Ioan asking more from the girls, I just feel with my career as well, it was too much to give.”

Farewell to a legend

For now, Welsh rugby is grateful for the 14 years Harries gave.

The romantics would like to have seen her say her farewell after one last Six Nations campaign. It would have been fitting for a player of her stature to run out one last time at the Principality Stadium against Italy, but professional sport has little time for sentiment.

Harries will still get a send-off in Llanelli on Sunday.

She starts for Brython Thunder, who take on Gwalia Lightning in the final round of the Celtic Challenge at Parc y Scarlets.

And when Wales take to the field later this month, Harries the teacher will finally get to enjoy the Easter holidays.

She says she is looking forward to spending more time with her pupils, although jokes the feeling may not be mutual.

“I don’t think they will be glad to have me back full-time, but I’ll definitely be glad,” she said.

“I’ve missed a lot of experiences with them, so it will be great just to be the teacher that’s around.

“I’ve just come from the regional finals with my under-15s girls and they were questioning me, ‘why are you retiring now? Why would you teach instead of being a pro rugby player?’.

“I said to them ‘I’m no spring chicken, I’m 34 and they were like ‘Miss, Ronaldo is 40, you can keep going!’.

“It’s great that they can see now that the game is growing. It’s great now that they can aspire to be a professional rugby player. But to them, I’m just a teacher.”

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