The great search for an Englishman playing well enough to challenge for a place in the British and Irish Lions starting line-up for the first Test against South Africa in Durban a little over 90 days from now has recently been defined by two words – the first of them "needle", the second "haystack". Paul Sackey, the Wasps wing, looked a decent bet at the start of the season, but he is going backwards very nearly as fast as he used to go forward. Andrew Sheridan? Too quiet by half. Tom Rees? Too injured, too often. Danny Cipriani? Please.
When Harry Ellis, the best scrum-half in the country, found himself slumming it on the red-rose bench for the autumn internationals and then got himself banned for dumping the most valuable player in the world – Daniel Carter – on the most valuable part of his anatomy – his head – during a Heineken Cup game in Perpignan, the odds against him bucking this miserable trend were very long indeed. If any English half-back was in the reckoning, it was Danny Care of Harlequins. And he was well behind the Scotland captain, Mike Blair, not to mention umpteen Welshmen.
How things change, and how quickly. Over four weekends of Six Nations activity, Ellis has re-established himself as England's number one No 9 and is now piling the heat on Blair, Mike Phillips, Gareth Cooper, Dwayne Peel and a small handful of other contenders for the trip to Springbok country. Indeed, this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham gives the 26-year-old from Leicester a precious opportunity to test himself against Blair, who in most eyes remains the marginal favourite for the role of senior scrum-half this summer.
According to Mike Ford, the England defence strategist, Ellis is operating at something like the peak of his powers. "He's worth a try a game to us through his aggressive tackling alone," said the former rugby league international, referring to the player's happy knack of smithereening opposing midfielders in areas of the field so private he runs a constant risk of being prosecuted for trespass. "He's brilliantly alert at picking up the slow pass to the outside-half, especially off line-outs. If they throw to the front to guarantee possession, the pass to the No 10 is bound to be a long one. Harry's sense of timing is so acute, he can often get to the man at the same time as the ball. And when he does that, we're in business."
Ellis might easily have been out of business, for good. If the knee injury he suffered shortly before the 2007 World Cup was a calamity waiting to happen – he had a history of problems in that department and knew he was playing injured – the gravity of it shocked him. "It can be pretty frustrating, teaching yourself how to walk again," he admitted this week.
"Did I ever think it was over for me? It's the kind of thing that goes through your mind when you have a problem of that magnitude. But my surgeon, Tim Green, was fantastic. So were the rehab people. I'll never stop being grateful to them. And no, I won't play injured again, although that's easier said than done. There are lots of things we rugby players do that we shouldn't."
There are a number of extremely knowledgeable coaches in the Guinness Premiership who suspect England would have fared just a little better during the pre-Christmas internationals had Ellis been the starting scrum-half, rather than Care. In their view, the half-back relationship between Care and Cipriani was ill-starred from the start: the last thing a running No 10 like Cipriani needed, they argued, was a running No 9 cramping his style.
Ellis has been known to run a bit himself, but it is not his raison d'être. He is a tough, cussed, hard-bitten little all-rounder. Just the kind of scrum-half, in fact, who might have made Cipriani look almost as good as everyone assumed him to be. He is not obviously one of life's natural stoics: the running battle he conducted with the French scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili during a fractious Heineken Cup match between Leicester and Biarritz at Welford Road a few seasons back was not an object lesson in emotional detachment, and there were those who pointed to his costly entanglement with Carter as another example of the competitive fires burning too brightly. But he is more philosophical than he once was, largely as a consequence of his injury.
"It's just such a roller-coaster, isn't it?" he said. "Being fit, getting injured, working your way back, getting banned, playing well again... it all comes round, and you learn to take it in your stride. I don't think I ever thought of the England scrum-half position as mine, or that my being picked to play was the natural order of things. I've always taken the view that if you allow yourself to think about too many things outside of your direct control, it can have only a negative impact. But more than ever before, I now regard it as a complete privilege to be involved in sport at this level.
"I found the injury hard to deal with and there were times when I felt miserable about things. But when I see Matt over there [he glanced across the garden of the team hotel to where Matt Hampson, the outstanding England age-group prop who was paralysed from the neck down during a scrummaging session four years ago, was sitting in his wheelchair, surrounded by family and friends] I think: 'Hey, just hang on a second. I'm here doing what I love doing; he loved rugby as much as anyone, and can't play at all.' Just thinking about that helps me keep things in their proper perspective."
By way of reinforcing the point, Ellis insisted that the forthcoming Lions selection was not in the forefront of his mind. "I'd love to go – it would be a wonderful thing," he said. "But it's feet-on-the-ground time as far as I'm concerned. It goes back to concentrating on those things that are within your control, rather than those that aren't. We have a Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham against a very physical team, and after that, I'll have Leicester to think about. I haven't turned out for them since before Christmas.
"What with the ban and the time the England blokes now spend together under the new elite player agreement, this is the longest I've ever been away from Welford Road. It's a strange feeling; really quite difficult to handle. I miss Leicester – I was born there; it's the place I love, the place where I know I can relax – and of course, I miss the close-knit atmosphere of the club. The people there are incredibly supportive. I don't know what would have happened to me if they hadn't been around to help me through my injury problems.
"In my absence, the team has been winning and other scrum-halves have been playing really well. Julien Dupuy, the Frenchman, has been terrific: he's a very different No 9 who learned his rugby in a very different culture, but he'll take a lot of shifting. There's Ben Youngs, too. What a talent. People say there's a lot of competition among England scrum-halves, and there is. But it's just as bad at Leicester." As it will be with the Lions. Should Ellis win that particular contest, what started as a difficult season will end as a golden one.Reuse content