Ellis tells England to have no fear
Wests Tigers' second row insists the Kangaroos have flaws ahead of today's game
Saturday 31 October 2009
Gareth Ellis would like it to be known that, contrary to some reports of his whereabouts, he has not spent the last 12 months among a race of supermen. The England second-rower plays against Australia today for the first time since opting to ply his trade there rather than in Yorkshire.
That makes him the only Pom in the National Rugby League, an elite competition the mystique of which has only grown since it disappeared from British television screens in mid-season.
His success there with Wests Tigers, like Adrian Morley's previous stint at Sydney Roosters, is one of the factors that should insure against England being awestruck in the Four Nations showdown at Wigan.
"They're the strongest rugby league nation in the world but they're not supermen and they'd be the first to say that," said Ellis. "They're players who knock on, miss tackles and make the same mistakes that I do."
Ellis did not make too many mistakes in his first season with the Tigers, finishing as their player of the year and winning plenty of accolades from their coach, Tim Sheens, who also happens to be in charge of Australia during this tournament.
"Talk to players in the NRL and they say 'how hard does that Pom hit'," Sheens says. In the bone-jarring collision that is Australian rugby league, there can be no higher compliment, except perhaps the fact that he regularly uses him for the full 80 minutes or that his team-mate and New Zealand captain, Benji Marshall, describes him as "the hardest-working back-rower I've ever played with."
Having signed for Wests from Leeds, Ellis is in the unusual position of having played for both today's coaches at club level. "They're similar in that they're both really passionate rugby league people. I can't begin to tell you how much I learned from Tony Smith when I signed for Leeds from Wakefield and it's been the same from Tim at the Tigers.
"He has coached more NRL games than anyone, so there's a wealth of experience there. The challenge of moving to a new club works for me and that was the case under both coaches.
"It helped that people didn't know a great deal about me. I sort of crept in under the radar."
Unlike some who watched the two opening games of the Four Nations last weekend, Ellis does not see them as evidence of a yawning chasm between standards in the two hemispheres. He watched Australia play New Zealand in the Yorkshire home he has retained, alongside the one he shares with his girlfriend on Sydney Harbour – they have a first child on the way – but saw nothing he is not used to dealing with week after week.
"The commentators kept saying what a great game it was, but that was a bit over the top, in my opinion. I think both sides can play better, but I didn't see too much that we need to be worried about."
Ellis believes that British sides have too often gone into matches against Australia with an inferiority complex, though the 52-4 humiliation in last year's World Cup is hard to erase from the memory. Indeed, as a naturally self-effacing type himself, he reckons it took him between five and 10 Tests before he really felt that he belonged on a field with the world's best players.
Now, armed with his recent experience, he has no qualms about his and his fellow forwards' ability to take on the Australian pack. Like his captain, Jamie Peacock, he would prefer a typically cold, wet autumn to the current Indian summer, but relishes the approaching battle.
"I'm excited about the sort of game it promises to be," said Ellis. "Obviously, they have an awesome backline, but we feel we can take them on down the middle."
One reason for that confidence is what might be called the NRL thread running through the English pack.
Morley gave him plenty of advice on what to expect in Australia and now Ellis is doing the same for Sam Burgess. If Morley is Pom Past and Ellis is Pom Present, then the 20-year-old Bradford forward is Pom Future.
Burgess is joining Russell Crowe's South Sydney as soon as the Four Nations is over and, with their camera crew following him through the tournament, there is little chance of him sneaking "under the radar" like Ellis.
"I think he'll be fantastic. I've seen him coming through from the age of 16 and I've so much respect for him as a player. You do sometimes feel like an ambassador for Super League out there and I can't think of anyone better to fly the flag for us Poms. He's capable of taking the NRL by storm."
If anyone is qualified to make that prediction it is Ellis, the familiar face who stands in the way of the Kangaroos today.
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