Harry Ellis: Harry in a hurry

Scrum-half remains a problem position for England, but as the man in possession Harry Ellis has quickly established himself as the man to beat
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The Independent Online

Harry Ellis may be a little squirt of a scrum-half from a family of hulking great back-row types - the "runt of the litter", as he cheerfully puts it - but he has been in eye-catching form of late. We are not talking any old eyes, either. Andy Robinson, the England coach, publicly identified the 23-year-old Midlander as a significant contributor to the big victory over Samoa before Christmas, which was no bad thing, given that Ellis's international status is entirely in Robinson's gift. Better still, if such a thing can be imagined, was the endorsement offered by some old lag by the name of Edwards following last weekend's events at Twickenham.

Yes, Gareth Edwards. Also known as God. The man who made the other Welshman enthroned in Red Dragon rugby heaven, Barry John, look good; the finest scrum-half ever to set foot on a rugby field; and so on, ad infinitum. "Gareth Edwards?" gasped Ellis, on being informed that the One and Only had taken to the airwaves on the morning after the match before to sing his praises, in three-part harmony with full musical accompaniment. Even though England had smithereened Wales all over south-west London. Even though the fallen Grand Slam champions pride themselves on having the best half-backs - all the best half-backs - to themselves.

"I didn't know that," Ellis said. "I'm really chuffed now. Gareth was it, wasn't he? If he liked what I did at Twickenham, then it's something special. Everyone who ever saw him play describes him as the best of the best. I'm honoured to think he's impressed by what I'm doing."

Ellis did not have the privilege of watching Edwards perform in the flesh, for the very good reason that the Welshman retired from big-time rugby four years before the Englishman drew his first breath. As a mini-rugby urchin doing his thing at South Leicester RFC on a Sunday morning, he copied Aadel Kardooni instead. Now, Kardooni was a decent scrum-half who made many senior appearances at Welford Road, but he was not Gareth Edwards. There must have been another role model, surely?

"One of my brothers spent some time playing for Rugby," Ellis replied, after considerable thought. "There was a blond bloke there by the name of Bishop. He was bloody good. He would try all sorts of things on a Saturday afternoon, and if they came off, I'd try them myself on the Sunday.

"And when I joined Leicester, Austin Healey was the pinnacle, the man who made me think: 'This is how good I want to be.' I took lots of things from him, but that was me all over. I'd pinch ideas from anyone if I thought they would work. Still do."

It is now a commonplace that the scrum-half role is something of a head-scratcher for England as they build towards the defence of their world title in France in 19 months' time. When they clasped the Webb Ellis Trophy to their breasts in 2003, it was a position of strength: Matthew Dawson, Kyran Bracken and Andy Gomarsall were the half-backs during the tournament, and both Dawson and Bracken delivered in spades at critical moments. But Bracken has long since called it a day at Test level, while Gomarsall is not so much flirting with anonymity as tying the knot with it at Worcester.

Dawson is still around, of course, but he is in diminuendo. Peter Richards of Gloucester? Robinson is one of his more vocal supporters, but as the sevens specialist plays so infrequently, the coach must be basing his opinion purely on the evidence of the odd training day at Loughborough University or the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot. Ben Foden? Robinson talks about him too, but sees even less of the Sale player than he sees of Richards. Zilch, in actual fact. The strong-running Shaun Perry of Bristol has made an almighty splash in his first Premiership season, but "second season syndrome" awaits. England were wounded as well as bereaved when Nick Duncombe, the brilliant young Harlequin, died in 2003.

Of course, it is not Ellis's place to question the depth, or lack of it, of England's scrum-half resources. "You don't make it into a squad of this quality if you're some sort of mug," he said, not unreasonably, "so it's important to get used to the idea that handy players are after your shirt. I'm getting the opportunity to start at present, but that is all it is: an opportunity. How settled do I feel? Not especially. The England set-up is an incredibly competitive place to be, and the scrum-half position is no different to prop or wing or No 8. Without wanting to sound too predictable, it's a question of taking every chance you're given. If you don't, someone else will take theirs."

All the same, Ellis is in the pound seats. His last two games for England have been his best - while last season's performances showed promise, Sir Clive Woodward was not sufficiently enamoured to include him in the largest Lions squad ever likely to be selected - and in international terms he is just beginning to show the kind of swagger that marked his try-scoring display for Leicester in the 2002 Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Llanelli at Nottingham Forest's City Ground. If there are other, darker moments in his European past that should remain unrepeated, not least his spiteful set-to with Dimitri Yachvili of Biarritz last season, the good bits are beginning to dominate the bad.

Which is probably as well, for Ellis has one hell of a run of games ahead of him. The Calcutta Cup match with a resurgent Scotland is only a fortnight away. Once that is done and dusted, there is the small matter of a Powergen Cup semi-final with Wasps, followed by a Six Nations contest with France in Paris, a tournament finale with Ireland at Twickenham, a Premiership visit to Bath and, by way of putting the tin lid on an exhausting couple of months, a Heineken Cup quarter-final against the same bitter opponents at Welford Road. Get through that little lot in one piece, Harry, and you'll be quite something.

"One piece? It's not really an option, is it?" he replied. "I don't know anyone who doesn't spend half his time playing injured. It's the nature of the game nowadays, and all you can hope to do is look after yourself as circumstances allow. I try to be as professional as I can about it, because there is so much at stake every time you run on the field, but yes, I've played when I shouldn't have done. Last season's Premiership final with Wasps at Twickenham was an example. I wasn't fit and I shouldn't have gone near the pitch, but the desire got the better of me. I lasted 15 minutes, which was just about what I deserved."

Did John Wells, then the head coach at Leicester, know about this? "Of course. It was a joint decision, a gamble we both believed was worth taking. Had I done it completely off my own bat I'd have looked a right fool, and you can't afford that in this day and age."

After he was knocked back by the Lions and exposed in his temporary physical wreckery on one of the biggest occasions in the history of the Leicester club - Martin Johnson's last competitive game, Neil Back's farewell to the Tiger-striped shirt - the concluding weeks of last season were a trial. This campaign is turning out to be quite the opposite. These are happy days for Ellis: positive, exciting, hugely satisfying.

"There's no better job than being paid to play rugby with your mates," he beamed. "We're a close-knit bunch at Leicester, but in this sport camaraderie goes way beyond the club environment. It goes all the way back through the age-group stuff - I played Under-21s with people like Matt Stevens, James Simpson-Daniel and Magnus Lund, all of whom are in the England squad now, and I played sevens with Chris Jones, who is also involved. That familiarity means a lot. It's wonderful to be a part of an international squad. It's even more wonderful to be there alongside people you came across when you were growing up."

By his own admission, Ellis is not yet fully grown. Not as a rugby player, at least. But he is getting there, fast. Pat Howard, the former Wallaby midfielder who coaches him at Leicester, has been instrumental in lightening his mood and liberating his spirit.

"He's the font of all knowledge," Ellis said. "I'm a self-critical sort by nature; I analyse my performances all the time and I can be very hard on myself. But thanks to Pat, I've learnt the value of enjoying what I do. He's the one who made me understand the pointlessness of negativity. I've changed a good deal, thanks to him." A changed man indeed. Not so long ago, Ellis might have taken one look at the jaw-droppingly ludicrous hairstyle sported by the scrum-half he faces today, the New Zealand-born Italian Paul Griffen, and taken it as a personal insult. Now, he rather envies the man's brass neck.

"Awesome," he said. "I'd love to go on the field looking like that." Really? At Twickenham, where the regulars would choke on their lightly poached turbot? At Welford Road, where spectators consider the driving line-out to be the height of radicalism? "Perhaps not," he agreed. "But hey, everyone to their own. He's a good scrum-half with a haircut to match. Fair play to the bloke."

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