Personality of the month
A black and white choice ANDY WILSON hails the return of Great Britain forward Gareth Ellis to Super League - and Hull
There was a fair amount of cynical chuntering about Gareth Ellis’s decision to choose Hull ahead of Leeds and all the other clubs who were keen to bring him back to England for next season. Down to the money, presumably, or perhaps the David Howes connection, Ellis’s agent having already placed Shaun McRae and Peter Gentle at the KC Stadium.
The real story, if you're sentimental enough to believe it - and I do - is a good deal more romantic. The formidable Wests Tigers and England forward quite fancies following in the footsteps of David Topliss, the late, great stand-off who scored two tries in Hull’s famous cup final replay win over Widnes in 1982. I’ll let Ken Ellis, Gareth’s dad - and a former professional player himself with Doncaster, York and the early Sheffield Eagles - explain.
“I knew David very well from being out with him in Australia on supporters tours, and he also had a bit to do with our Gareth. He always spoke about Hull and his memories there - even though he was from Wakefield and spent most of his career with them. I know Sammy Lloyd too and it’s the same with him even though he’s from Cas, the same with Kevin Harkin, Knocker Norton it’s all about Hull. I said to our Gareth, they must be doing something right over there - it’s obviously a club that people who have played there keep an affinity for.
“So when he was making his decision, and he rang me up - he still does, even though he’s 30, which is a nice thing for a dad - and said let’s be serious, what are we going to do, that’s the sort of thing we talked about.
“It might have been nice for him to play for Castleford, but it was just never on. He could have gone back to Leeds, where they’re a great set of lads. But he would have been going back. This is something different and new, and like he says wherever he’s gone so far - Wakefield, Leeds and the Tigers - it’s always worked out for him. I hope he can be a legend, like they call him out in Balmain, in Hull too.”
Apologies if you’re sick of all this soppiness, but it turns out Ellis's reasons for coming back to Yorkshire were anything but hard-headed,
either. “When he came back to get married [to Rachael] at Christmas, I think it hit both of them,” Ken continues. “He’s got three sisters, and seeing them with their kids, that made a difference. We’re glad he’s coming back, obviously. It’s a shame he’s got this foot injury now but it’s only a small bone, and hopefully he’s still got exciting times over there before he’s done at the Tigers.”
Most Forty-20 readers will be aware of the achievement most regularly trotted out to confirm how successfully Ellis has established himself in the NRL - player of the year in each of his three seasons with the Tigers. But Mark Flanagan, who was a Wests team-mate for two campaigns before returning home to join St Helens last autumn, provides a more graphic account of the qualities that have demanded respect in the world’s toughest rugby competition - and will now provide such a boost to Hull.
“I remember at the end of the 2010 season, we played the Roosters in a play-off match,” Flanagan recalled. “Gareth had a really bad back. I wasn’t due to play in the game, but everyone from our coach Tim Sheens down was expecting me to have to because Gareth wouldn’t be able to. In the changing rooms before kick-off, he could hardly walk. But he had painkilling injections, had a brace on his back, and he started the game like a house on fire - you wouldn’t believe there was anything wrong with him. That’s the sort of bloke he is, so tough. He’s a good bloke, as well, as everybody always says. When I first went out there he was a massive help - I’d sent him a short email asking for any advice, and he sent me back a massive long essay. Again, that’s typical of him - I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. I tried to get him to Saints, obviously, but Hull will be a good move for him.”
“It does make you proud when you hear things like that,” says Dad Ken. “As proud as all the things he’s achieved on the field, to be honest. You wouldn’t be as proud of a worldbeating player if he was a bit of a dick.”
It was these off-field qualities that had convinced David Solomona and the other senior figures at Wakefield Trinity that Ellis would go right to the top by the end of his first season in first grade.
“I was cleaning some stuff out recently and came across an old interview I did with a magazine, saying that even then he was one of the few English players I could see being a star in the NRL,” said Solomona. “Having been around for quite a while in the sport I could tell he was something special. He just had that little bit extra, in everything he did.”
Yet he had gone unspotted under Castleford’s noses for years, playing at Lock Lane, until John Harbin, the knockabout Aussie who had joined Wakefield as a development officer before embarking on an unusual coaching career that led to Oldham Athletic and Crystal Palace, identified something special in an 18year-old playing for Yorkshire’s amateurs against Lancashire.
Within a couple of seasons, a 21year-old Ellis was captaining Shane McNally’s Trinity from the unfamiliar position of stand-off to a famous play-off win over Hull at the KC Stadium. Now, numerous Test caps and major finals later, he is heading back to the scene of that triumph. No wonder the black and white zealots are excited he’ll be wearing their colours.
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April 2012 Forty-20 5