The Duke of Sussex laughed, joked and hugged his way through his first official public engagement since he and his wife quit as senior royals, triggering a major crisis for the monarchy.
Despite a week which began with an unprecedented royal summit to discuss the Sussexes’ future roles, Harry appeared relaxed and at ease as he took part in the Rugby League World Cup 2021 draw hosted at Buckingham Palace.
He even batted off a journalist’s question about his next move, smiling to a member of his entourage when he was asked “How are the discussions going on your future?”
Comedian and presenter Adam Hills was part of a group of executives and players from the 21 competing nations at the event, and he praised Harry for being up to date, despite his turbulent few weeks, with the story of rugby league great Rob Burrow, diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
Sydney-born Hills, who was representing Australia, said Harry had chatted about Burrow’s recent testimonial match: “That for me shows the kind of duty and commitment to rugby league that he has.”
The host of the Channel 4 satirical show The Last Leg added: “That in amongst everything else that’s going on in his life, that he is aware of the rugby league story of the year.”
An Instagram video was later released on the official sussexroyal account, giving the couple’s 10.8 million followers a montage of the duke’s day at the palace.
The Stone Roses song This Is the One was the soundtrack to the footage, and it contains the lyric “I’d like to leave the country for a month of Sundays” – but it was not heard in the posting.
The video has been interpreted by some as suggesting Harry is saying farewell before he joins his wife in Canada. Sources have already said he has meetings early next week but it remains to be seen if they are public engagements.
The Queen has agreed to Harry and Meghan’s wish to step down from their role as senior royals, become financially independent and begin a transition period of living in Canada and the UK.
The duchess is in Canada with son Archie and has carried out her second charity visit since returning to the province of British Columbia, where the Sussexes spent six weeks over the festive period.
Justice for Girls, which campaigns for an end to violence, poverty and racism in the lives of teenage girls, has tweeted black and white images of Meghan visiting the organisation in Vancouver.
The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s biggest newspapers, has slammed the duke and duchess’ decision to spend part of the year in the Commonwealth country.
The publication said in an editorial: “A royal living in this country does not accord with the long-standing nature of the relationship between Canada and Britain, and Canada and the Crown.
“This country’s unique monarchy, and its delicate yet essential place in our constitutional system, means that a royal resident … is not something that Canada can allow.”
There is speculation over whether the world cup draw was Harry’s last royal engagement as a senior royal, but Commonwealth Day – celebrated on March 9 – will be the real test.
The day is a major event in the royal calendar that features all leading members of the monarchy, so if Harry and Meghan are not present it signals their new life away from frontline duties has begun.
Harry’s day began in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and after sharing a joke and a laugh with Jon Dutton, chief executive of the Rugby League World Cup 2021, he stood on the sidelines to watch a group of youngsters playing tag rugby.
James Simpson, an ambassador for the tournament and an England and Leeds Rhinos wheelchair rugby league star, made the duke laugh when he quipped “we started without you”.
Twelve children from St Vincent de Paul Catholic primary school in Westminster were staging the exhibition game, and during a break Harry joked, “Look after the grass though yeah? Otherwise I’ll get in trouble”, likely a reference to the Queen’s keen interest in the state of her palace garden.
Inside the palace, Harry met representatives from the 21 competing nations and joked with the host of The Last Leg about the comic’s beard, modelled on “Geoff from Byker Grove”, a character from the BBC children’s series.
Hills, who was born without a right foot and who plays physical disability rugby league for Warrington Wolves, said: “He said it’s the best manicured and styled beard he has ever seen, and then added ‘I’ve seen a lot of beards’.
“And I said I had promised not to cut this until Brexit was sorted and that it should be coming off on January 31, and he said ‘Well, let’s see’.”
Harry was asked about the impact of sport on people’s lives ahead of the live televised draw for the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments.
Highlighting his experience of staging the Invictus Games, for wounded service personnel and veterans, and watching sport in general, he said: “The impact it has on the individuals playing with the community as a whole is remarkable.”
He added: “Not only do I continue to see sport actually changing lives, but it’s saving lives as well, so I think for me and … everybody in this room, whether it’s rugby league, or sports in general … it needs to be in everybody’s life if possible.”
Rugby league and union great Jason Robinson and Dame Katherine Grainger, Olympic rowing gold medallist and chair of UK Sport, also took part in the ceremony.
Ever the joker, at one point during the draw, Harry made the audience laugh when, after another ball was added to the bowl in front of him, he turned his body as he looked away while stirring them before selecting one.
Robinson has known Harry for a number of years and worked on projects with the royal and said the pair hugged when they met.
Asked if he thought Harry would remain part of the rugby league world when his new role became apparent, Robinson replied: “I’m not sure what the future holds, but one thing I am quite certain, if you look at what Prince Harry’s done to date – he cares about people, physically, mentally.
“He’s gone all over the world inspiring, caring, looking after people – I don’t think that will change. What capacity he does it going forward, will be up to him.”