St John Ellis
Longest-serving rugby league coach
Wednesday 04 January 2006
St John Ellis, rugby league player and coach: born York 3 October 1964; married (two daughters); died Castleford, West Yorkshire 31 December 2005.
St John Ellis was not only a rugby league player good enough to represent Great Britain and an enthusiastic and successful young coach. He was also one of the most vibrant characters in a game that cannot quite believe that he is gone at the age of 41.
Singe, as he was always known - his more formal nomenclature was the result of his mother's seeing a newscaster of that name on television whilst she was expecting him - was a late developer in the code, playing football in his youth and having trials with several Football League clubs. Shortly before Christmas, he was still playing for an amateur side in Castleford, scoring eight goals in one match.
He worked as a plasterer, as he did for much of his rugby career, and his then boss persuaded him to give the game a try, although he was 23 before he signed as a professional with his home-town club, York. His breakthrough came when he played in a pre-season friendly against Castleford, a strong club in what was then the First Division, and scored a length-of-the-field try direct from a kick-off.
The Castleford coach, Darryl Van de Velde, was sufficiently impressed to sign him, in an exchange deal valued at £30,000, for the 1989-90 season. Although at York Ellis had been regarded as a utility back, capable of playing centre and full-back, he was an instant hit as a specialist winger at Wheldon Road. He quickly made his mark, making his début against the New Zealand tourists and going on to score 23 tries in 26 appearances that first season, including a club record-equalling five in a match against Whitehaven in the Regal Trophy.
His six seasons at Cas were a time of great personal achievement. He was in two Yorkshire Cup-winning sides and one that lost the Challenge Cup final to the then unstoppable Wigan at Wembley in 1992. Most memorably, he was a member of the side that exacted revenge on Wigan two years later, by thrashing them in the final of the Regal Trophy. That 1993-94 season was Ellis's finest. Playing outside the giant Kiwi centre Richie Blackmore, he "scored tries for fun", in the old phrase that was singularly appropriate for him. The 40 tries he finished with broke a 20-year-old club record.
As a winger, Ellis was flamboyant without being classical. He had a habit of cropping up anywhere on the pitch and his unpredictable running could take him just about anywhere else. He was, however, a highly efficient finisher, as his final Castleford tally of 97 tries in 175 appearances shows. Also, at a time when one wing position for Great Britain was inevitably filled by Martin Offiah, he was a leading candidate for the other.
Ellis never quite managed a starting position in a Test side, but came on as a substitute in both matches against France, in Perpignan and Leeds, in 1991. (In the latter of those he was, by coincidence, on the bench alongside Roy Powell, another player destined to die prematurely of a heart attack after a training session.) He played a third game as a Great Britain substitute against France in Carcassonne in 1994. By that time - and despite his prolific try-scoring - his relationship with Castleford had cooled. By the end of his record-breaking season, he was on the transfer list at £200,000 after the breakdown of contract negotiations.
When he got his move - and not at anything like that figure - it was to Australia, to rejoin his old mentor, Van de Velde, at the South Queensland Crushers for their inaugural season in the Winfield Cup. He started eight games for the new club, scoring a try and kicking 13 goals - another of his handy sidelines - but he was soon homesick for Yorkshire.
Back home, he played for Bradford in 1995-96, before breaking his leg with Halifax and having brief spells with Keighley and Hunslet. By 1999, he was with Doncaster, one of the perennial strugglers of the game, and his mind was turning to coaching. In some ways, Singe seemed an unlikely candidate. He had always been a free spirit and a notorious joker, but he turned out to be deadly serious about his new career.
He took over as Doncaster coach that season, too late to prevent them finishing 18th and last in the Premiership, making them the lowest-ranked club in the professional game. The following year, helped by some ambitious recruitment, in which Ellis's powers of persuasion were often crucial, they were third.
Since the split into two divisions below Super League, the Dragons have been one of the sides with aspirations to be promoted to the élite. One of their achievements under Ellis was to become notoriously difficult to beat at home, with the Belle Vue ground they shared with the town's football club unofficially re-named "The House of Pain". Ellis's role in creating a daunting atmosphere for visiting teams was captured vividly in the award-winning television series Rugby League Raw.
Although he had much of the old-style motivator in his approach, he was also a deep thinker about the game. And, in a job with famously insecure prospects, he was durable. Young though he was, by the end of last season Ellis was the longest-serving coach in the professional game. "Singe worked selflessly for the club for five and a half years," said his chairman, John Wright, with whom he had a relationship which was close to that of father and son.
His death comes at a time when his enthusiasm - never something that was in doubt - had been stoked up by the re-branding of the club as the Doncaster Lakers and the impending move to a new ground at the town's Lakeside Complex later this year.
Doncaster have dedicated their efforts to take a revitalised club into Super League to Ellis's memory and are also likely to stage a first game at the new stadium against Castleford to raise money for his young family. That would be a fitting tribute to one of the game's most popular figures.
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