Rugby League: Ellis fuels a fiery passion with confidence: Castleford's winger aims to impress in today's Regal Trophy semi-final. Dave Hadfield reports
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Saturday 01 January 1994
Indeed. Infants with a given name more often associated with the host invisible or the House of Lords were a rarity in York 29 years ago and his background almost certainly makes him unique in his chosen sport. 'My father was from Jamaica. My mum's Anglo-American and the name came from a newscaster she'd seen on TV,' he said.
'Singe', as he tends to be known - although some still mistakenly dub him Ian St John Ellis - is a most unusual-looking person.
If he had been born in West Africa as light-skinned as he is, he would have become a griot, one of the musician caste. However, he was born in Yorkshire, became a rugby league player, and, this season more than ever, rather a remarkable one.
On the right wing for Castleford, Ellis has burnt opposing defences to the tune of 22 tries so far. More than anyone, he has benefited from the more laissez-faire approach they have adopted since the appointment of John Joyner as coach and he figures as the major threat to Bradford in this afternoon's Regal Trophy semi-final at Odsal.
'The style of play has changed at the club,' he said. 'John doesn't want us to cut any of the flair players out. We're likely to throw the ball around from anywhere and other teams can't read us. I've seen a lot of the ball and that has given me a lot of confidence to take people on.'
The instinctive enthusiasm with which Ellis takes people on can be a frustration as well as a joy to a coach. The previous imcumbent at Wheldon Road, Darryl Van de Velde, used to threaten to cut off his right leg if he did not curb his habit of throwing in an extra side-step for the hell of it.
'But now I've been given a free rein. I know John doesn't mind if I try to take someone on and it doesn't work. Next time it will.'
With the season only half-way through, Ellis has an excellent chance of breaking Castleford's record for tries in a season, the 36 scored by Keith Howe 30 years ago.
In one extraordinary burst this autumn, he crossed for hat-tricks in three successive appearances and for two tries in the next match. One of the hat-tricks was against the New Zealand tourists, giving him hope that he might be given another chance at international level.
Ellis played for Great Britain three years ago and has a burning desire to do so again. The experience was tantalisingly brief; twice he came on as substitute full-back in the latter stages of matches against France that were already convincingly won.
'I wouldn't say I've really had a taste at that level. I just got my lips wet. I thought I had a chance of playing against New Zealand, though, but they brought Martin Offiah straight in after his injury. Nothing against him - he can score tries from anywhere - but I thought I was in with a shout.'
Offiah, his Wigan team-mate, Jason Robinson, and John Devereux form a daunting barrier for any aspiring Test wing man at the moment, but Ellis, sitting on top of the try-scoring lists, has a strong argument at his disposal.
'A winger is judged on the tries he scores. If you look at the lists now, I think they're all about 10 behind me. In my situation, you've got to keep scoring. You've got to pick yourself.'
Apart from being called Ian, the one thing that irritates Ellis is being told that he is in his twilight. There is still far more bubbling, youthful enthusiasm in his game than there is of the world-weary and worldly-wise. 'I'll play till I drop,' he promises. 'I've got a zest for the game.
'When you look around a town like Castleford, with the redundancies and the pits closing, you realise how fortunate you are to be paid to do something you love. It gives you a responsibility to always give it your best shot as well, because, for a lot of people, having a good rugby team in town is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.'
Ellis' personal tunnel has a Test cap against France this Spring at its end. 'It shouldn't be the way it works, but you have to show what you can do in the right match, in front of the right people,' he said. 'A televised semi-final is perfect.'
Ellis will pursue his own personal game plan again this afternoon - one that has served him well so far this season.
'Every time I get the ball, I aim to do something different and to get a bit further with it than the previous time,' he said. 'If you can do that, you've played a perfect game, haven't you?
'You can't hide on a rugby league field - and who wants to hide anyway? - and you can't fool the spectators. But I believe that if you really want something, you'll get it.'
Ellis, an unusual man with an unusually fiery passion for his game, could get closer to what he craves today.
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