World stage fit for Ellis before he turns from Rhino to Tiger

Great Britain second-rower eager to produce his finest form for Leeds on Friday night against very best from the league he will join this summer, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

For Gareth Ellis, Friday night will be a celebration of his Leeds past and present and a taste of his Australian future.

The Rhinos' Great Britain second-rower has already told them that he is leaving at the end of this season, unable to resist the challenge of a three-year contract pitting himself against the best on the other side of the world for the Sydney club, Wests Tigers. Ellis's first game for Leeds, exactly three years ago, was against the Canterbury Bulldogs in the World Club Challenge at Elland Road and he admits to feeling a bit of a fraud.

"It was a strange night for me," he says. "It was as though it was a reward for the previous season and I was gatecrashing the party. It was a massive game for me to start my Leeds career, but I didn't quite feel part of it."

The situation this week against Melbourne Storm could not be much more different, because Ellis has been such an integral part of the Rhinos' success since his arrival from Wakefield Trinity. So important has he become, with his blend of mobility, durability and skill, that replacing him successfully is already shaping up as Leeds' biggest problem for next season.

"He's going to be extremely difficult to replace," says his coach, Brian McClennan. "But he wants to test himself in the strongest competition in the world."

It is that, rather than pure financial considerations, that is taking Ellis to Australia at the end of this year. He does not, in fact, deny suggestions that he is actually taking a pay cut in order to fulfil his ambitions.

"The good thing about making my decision so early is that I can get on with it now knowing what I'm doing next year," Ellis himself says. "It makes me even more determined to have a successful year with Leeds. I'll be 30 when I come back and at that age my chances of winning much might have more or less gone."

Before making his decision, Ellis consulted two former Leeds players who have tried their luck in Australia's National Rugby League – Adrian Morley, who had a long and successful spell with the Sydney Roosters, and Richie Mathers, who lasted just one injury-plagued season with the Gold Coast Titans.

"Mozza loved it out there and, when I asked him, he just said that if I had the chance I should go for it," he said. "Richie only went for a year, but he told me he didn't regret a minute of it. It's a big challenge to go and play out there, but it's also a fantastic opportunity.

"My main focus for the rest of this year is playing well for the Leeds Rhinos, but I know there will be people watching on Friday night and thinking, 'That's what we've got coming over here next year'."

If Ellis is to make a good advance impression, he must do so in direct opposition on Friday night to one of Australia's best.

Ryan Hoffman made the Test team last year and is rated as the current state of the art as a second-rower. The two will occupy the same side of the field at Elland Road, so the opportunities for comparison will be obvious and McClennan is already identifying it as one of the key match-ups of the night.

"He's a great player and being up against him is going to be a fair indication of what I'm going to be up against next year," Ellis says. Another season like last, when Ellis missed only one game and underpinned everything Leeds achieved with his consistent excellence, would do him nicely. The Rhinos will then wave him off without rancour.

"We always knew it was his ambition to play in the NRL. He wouldn't have contemplated playing for any other Super League club," says the club's chief executive, Gary Hetherington. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and we fully understand that he has to take it."

On Friday, Super League's standard-bearer to the Antipodes has his chance to show Leeds what they will be losing and Australia what they will be gaining. It is a dual responsibility that could bring out the very best in him, and it is certainly what his team-mates have come to expect of him over the last three years. "It's always really disappointing to lose someone like Gareth as a team-mate and a friend," says the Leeds scrum-half, Rob Burrow. "But he wants to test himself and I've no doubt he will come through. He's shown that every week for Leeds. He will go out there and do exceptionally well."

That could be a storm warning for Melbourne at Elland Road, where Ellis will have something to prove to both sides.

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