In moments of extreme weakness, it is just about possible to feel sorry for New Zealand, the poor petals. Their sporting economy is weakening by the day – the successful bid for the 2011 World Cup was based unashamedly on the idea that by 2015 they will be too skint to host anything grander than a pro-am sheep-shearing contest – and they are haemorrhaging players of All Black quality faster than at any point in their history. There again, they can lose a scrum-half as good as Byron Kelleher to rugby's Eurozone and still leave the brilliant Piri Weepu out in the cold. Maybe they are not quite the victims they sometimes imagine themselves to be.
If England could afford such luxuries in the half-back department, they would throw a party. It is a little over a year since Harry Ellis wrecked his left knee for the umpteenth time during a play-off match with Bristol, thereby ruling himself out of the defence of the Webb Ellis Cup in France. Since then, there has been any amount of fiddling around at No 9. Shaun Perry, Peter Richards, Andy Gomarsall, Richard Wigglesworth, Paul Hodgson (for about a minute, bless him) – all have filled the position, and all have struggled to take ownership of it.
Ellis is back now. Except he isn't. Not in the England sense, at any rate. Fully fit and feisty as you like after endless months doing nothing much – "Weights and more weights, two sessions a day, plus lots of hanging around like a spare part," was how he put it this week – he will play for Leicester in this afternoon's Premiership final against Wasps at Twickenham and then sit back with his feet up while the national team head off to All Black country for some jolly japes in Auckland and Christchurch. Ellis needs England almost as much as England need Ellis, but for the time being the two must remain apart.
"God, I wanted to go to New Zealand," he said. "It's everyone's dream to play for England, and it's been my dream for the last year to play for England again. I found myself back at square one after the injury but I'm every bit as fit now as I was before it happened and I'm right in the flow. But you have to listen sometimes, don't you?
"While it was in my mind to make myself available for the trip, other people had different ideas as to what was best for me. Basically, it's been decided that I'll benefit more from having a proper rest, leading into a proper pre-season, than from throwing myself at the All Blacks. It's frustrating, but there you go."
The 26-year-old local product – born into a family of what dear old Bill McLaren would have called "substantial citizens", the self-confessed runt of the litter was still a few months shy of primary school age when he first developed a taste for rugby at the South Leicester club – has had more trouble with that left knee of his than he cares to remember.
"I think I'm up to six operations now," he said. "Like Richard Hill [the revered Saracens flanker who called it quits at the end of the regular season after years of knee trouble serious enough to ensure he will never again walk without a limp], I have some flexion issues with the joint. It's something to do with fibrosis. But I'm fine, honestly. The injuries weren't linked in any way. They just happened when they happened. Pure bad luck, I'm afraid."
All the same, this stuff about flexion and fibrosis is enough to raise legitimate concerns about Ellis' chances of staying fit enough for long enough to give himself an even chance of fulfilling his considerable potential. No English scrum-half since Kyran Bracken has been so proficient across such a range of skills: Matt Dawson, who eventually won a compelling battle with Bracken for international preferment, was a less fluent performer than his great rival, but was more resilient and was equipped with what might most accurately be identified as a seize-the-moment mentality. Like Bracken, who struggled for years with a back condition, Ellis knows what it is to see the moment slip by.
Yet if a player is intent on hammering himself back into shape and proving his readiness, Leicester is as good a place as anywhere to go about it. The Tigers' training sessions, held far from prying eyes at an increasingly fortified base on the edge of town, are notoriously fractious and frequently conducted in an atmosphere of purest evil. Ellis is no one's idea of a shrinking violet – by comparison, Bracken was a card-carrying pacifist – but he must surely have felt just a little tremulous at the prospect of reintroducing himself to the Martin Corrys, the Lewis Moodys and, heaven help us, the Julian Whites.
"Not at all," he said. "I was gagging for it, actually. All I wanted was to get back out there on the training pitch and get involved. We like to train the way we intend to play – everyone knows that – and I've grown used to it. I was out of rugby for a long while and it's always a big moment when you resume contact work after a break like that one, but when you've spent all that time in the gym feeling useless the thought of a good hard session with your clubmates is one of the things that keeps you going. Besides, I put on some bulk with all those weights. A bit of extra muscle helps you cope."
He is alive to the irony of his situation as he prepares for this meeting with Wasps. "Last time, I played all season and missed the final; this time, I'm playing in the final having missed the season," he said. "It's bound to be tight, a real struggle. I suppose we view Wasps as our greatest rivals these days. We see a lot of their players, both in big club games and in the England environment, and there aren't many things we don't know about them as individuals. They must feel the same when they look at us.
"A lot will be made of the fact that this is Lawrence Dallaglio's last game – that it's his day, blah-de-blah. All that stuff will pass us by, I can assure you. From Wasps' point of view, it will be about 22 players, not one player. From our point of view, we have a final to win, a title to defend. There are always added extras surrounding a game like this, but none of us allow ourselves to be distracted. We try not to do distraction at Leicester.
"Just about a year ago, we lost to them in the Heineken Cup final. A few weeks ago, we beat them in the semi-final of the EDF Energy Cup. Neither game will be mentioned as part of the build-up to this one. You don't dwell on defeats, you don't wallow around in victory. Those things are in the past. They have no relevance."
Relevance to Ellis is the current state of the Leicester team, not so much physically, because pretty much everyone is hanging at this stage of a campaign, but in mind and spirit, where it really counts. In the last five minutes of the final league game – a home fixture against Harlequins that started out pear-shaped and threatened to stay that way – the Midlanders were not only out of the Premiership play-offs, but out of next season's Heineken Cup too. Then, Tom Varndell intervened. Leicester moved from seventh to fourth in the time it took the fastest wing in Europe to complete a kick-and-chase, thereby booking a semi-final at Gloucester, where Andy Goode's last-minute drop goal saw them home.
"Those games told me something about Leicester," Ellis said. "They told me that when the chips are down, when it's backs-against-the-wall time, the spirit holds firm. Where do the last-minute drops come from, the try-saving tackles? It's about what's going on inside."
Can that spirit remain intact in the face of the off-field rumour-mongering about Marcelo Loffreda and his future, or lack of one, as Leicester coach? "That sort of thing has no impact whatsoever," Ellis said. "It's down to the 15 blokes on the pitch to find ways of making their own impact. Players affect things on match day, not coaches. For what it's worth, I've consulted Marcelo a lot this season and found him to be completely professional in everything he does."
Which leaves 2008-09, and Ellis's plans for a return to international activity in Lions year. Having left his country's knickers in a nasty twist by getting himself injured at the wrong moment – no one seriously doubts that he would have played all the World Cup games that mattered had he been able to stand up – how does he respond to the sudden emergence of Wigglesworth, Danny Care and Ben Foden as rivals for the treasured shirt?
"It's great for the game in this country that we have so many high-quality scrum-halves in the Premiership," he said. "But those people play for other clubs, and I don't concern myself with external factors. Here at Leicester, I'll have enough on my plate staying ahead of a player like Ben Youngs [the 18-year-old son of a former international half-back, Nick Youngs]. Ben will play for England one day, I'm convinced of it, so when we talk about competition, I don't have to look too far to find some, do I?"Reuse content