Hard winter can be a springboard for Ellis

The England conundrum: Young scrum-half fizzes for his club but needs time to make transition for his country
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The Independent Online

To sum up England's Six Nations' Championship of blood, sweat and jeers, look no further than Harry Ellis's three mad minutes at Twickenham eight days ago.

A smartly taken try at the corner then, 180 seconds later, a 180-degree turnaround, and an interception try handed to Scotland's Simon Taylor. Joy and acclaim, upset and blame.

"That's sport, isn't it," said Ellis, England's 22-year-old scrum-half. "You do something good, you do something bad, you have an absolute shocker. Shit happens, you have to get in with it."

Yes, Ellis epitomises England at this widely acknowledged crossroads almost midway through the World Cup cycle. Bright-eyed and pugnacious - he has knocked around with the Martin Johnsons and Neil Backs at Leic-ester long enough for their nuggety nous to rub off - he has an older man's awareness of the pride and the pitfalls of the professional game.

But when he says he has a lot to learn, he means it. "There's a thousand little things you take in. Playing in front of a packed house, the expectation, the pressure, the levels you have to attain consistently. Andy Robinson [England's head coach] told me to go out and express myself, to keep the speed of the game up and to play my heart out."

The tricky thing for Ellis and for England was to do so amid the eddies of a transitional phase swirling around them. The back division who played in the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney had 270 caps between them; against Scotland at Twickenham last weekend the figure was 114.

Josh Lewsey had the fewest caps among the backs in Sydney, and the most (34) against the Scots. But while injuries to Jason Robinson, Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood, Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen forced coach Robinson's hand at fly-half, centre, wing and full-back - the likes of Jamie Noon, Olly Barkley, Iain Balshaw, Charlie Hodgson and Ollie Smith might otherwise not have featured - it was not the case with Ellis.

The older and more familiar Matt Dawson and Andy Gomarsall were both available throughout the Six Nations but, following the opening-round defeat by Wales, England were wild enough about Harry to start him in every match.

"I'm grateful to have had the opportunity Andy Robinson gave me," said Ellis. "I don't think I played brilliantly and I've played better this year for Leicester. The biggest thing with England was playing with guys you don't normally play with."

The point is echoed by Ellis's clubmate at half-back, Andy Goode, who took his own bow for England from the bench in the wins over Italy and Scotland which followed the setbacks against Wales, France and Ireland. "The England team is a young team," said Goode. "Some of the stick we took was justified, but it is a rebuilding phase, which needs time. There were passages when we played well, and others that went badly. We're building towards a World Cup two-and-a-half years from now, but because England are the world champions, the public think we should win every game.

"Harry will be the most fired-up man in the dressing room for Leicester, but with England we didn't see him making as many sniping breaks as he does with the club. It's partly a confidence thing. He was with a new fly-half in Charlie Hodgson, and when your team are losing you tend to question your decisions even more. Slowly but surely in the Six Nations he was coming out of his shell, and the try he scored down the left against the Scots was typical Harry."

The memory of the swallow dive draws a smile from Ellis. "I had to do it to make sure [Scotland's full-back] Chris Paterson didn't get to me." And the interception score by Taylor? There is no need to labour the point that Ellis gave the pass, and he makes no excuses save for a brief mention that perhaps the forwards might have done more.

Which again highlights new England: one wonders whether a back row of, say, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio would have allowed the Scot- land No 8 to get within snaffling range.

Ellis's try, started and finished by the scrum-half on the short side of a maul, was reminiscent in its dramatic execution of the one he scored to secure an early-season draw for Leicester in the Premiership at home to Bath.

A couple of slip-ups against Biarritz notwithstanding, the Tigers go to Leeds today in the league, and to Leinster next Saturday in the Heineken Cup, shaping up nicely for a repeat of the double they managed in 2002.

It was Ellis's first senior season, and he caught the eye, aged 19, with a coruscating try which knocked the stuffing out of Llanelli in the Heineken semi-final. In the final, against Munster in Cardiff, he came off the bench to replace Jamie Hamilton, now his technical coach at Leicester. "In the last couple of years we haven't done well," Ellis said, "and it's our aim to win the Heineken Cup this season."

With finals at Twickenham and Murrayfield to shoot for, who knows where Ellis's season will end? As for the summer, it could start with England at the Churchill Cup, or even with the Lions.

Most pundits predict that Sir Clive Woodward is unlikely to leave home without an English scrum-half; the good knight may prefer experience over youth in New Zealand, but in England's here and now it is Ellis over Dawson.