Gentle giant Gareth turns into enforcer Ellis at kick-off
September 9, 2011
A tame Tiger off-field, this forward is no Yorkshire pudding come game time, writes Richard Hinds.
Gareth Ellis has just walked into the sheds at the Wests Tigers’ Concord training ground wearing a baseball cap to protect his English complexion from the spring sun. And yet, as the powerful forward talks about his remarkable career in a soft Yorkshire accent, you soon start to imagine him wearing a flat cap instead.
The diverse mixture of ethnicity in the charismatic Tigers team is a reminder of the NRL’s exotic racial profile. More pertinently, it demonstrates how players from vastly different backgrounds share the game’s most vital characteristic - an ability to thrive in a brutal environment.
Ellis’s noted toughness is derived from a source so stereotypical it is the source of the game’s most famous movie. When he talks about his father, Ken, spending his working days down the mines, and his Saturday afternoons playing amateur rugby league in the depths of the winter, you can’t help think of the bloody battles portrayed in This Sporting Life.
Ellis, of course, has seen the film. He can’t quite recall his father playing, but his memories of similar encounters seem straight from the big screen. ‘‘Can you imagine the winters in England?’’ he says shaking his head. ‘‘You think some of those games, there’d be players just caked in mud.’’
Yet, if the thought of bitterly cold days in the industrial north evoke bleak images, Ellis has nothing but fond memories of his childhood. His parents struggled at times - particularly during the long miners’ strike - and were forced to move from Castleford to Selby, near York, when Ellis was six because the local pit closed. But he says that made him appreciate what he had - and what others had done for him.
‘‘There would have been really tough times with four kids [Ellis has three sisters],’’ he says. ‘‘But I had a really good childhood. Never wanted for anything.’’
Ellis was a good, but not outstanding, junior and, surprisingly now, smaller than most of his teammates. Back then, the only NRL jerseys he seemed likely to wear were those brought back by relatives who came out to watch Great Britain tours. At home, Ellis’s St George, Parramatta and Canberra jerseys were as exotic as the foreign soccer shirts worn by children here.
When he was 14, Ellis gave up rugby league for two years. Selby was a soccer town and his father, who worked as a crane driver after the last pits closed, was spending hours driving him to faraway training venues. ‘‘I was all right, nothing special,’’ says Ellis of his brief soccer career. ‘‘But I guess it was a nice change.’’
Then, like his height, Ellis’s career had a sudden growth spurt. He was picked for Yorkshire as a junior and, after another player went part-time, was offered a £60 per-week apprenticeship at Wakefield. It was an easy decision for Ellis, who was about to complete a public service course at a local college. Somehow, even then, the thought of the big forward enforcing local council regulations, instead of hitting up from the line, seemed incongruous.
From there, Ellis’s career was remarkably smooth sailing. Almost instant promotion at Wakefield, England caps, a lucrative move to local giant Leeds where he won two titles. So why, in the prime of his career, would Ellis risk his reputation by making the move to Australia. Especially when - before the exchange rate turned in his favour - there was more money on the table at Leeds? Why listen to the urging of his Aussie teammate Mark O’Neill, or be seduced by Tigers coach Tim Sheens, when he could have enjoyed the comforts of home?
‘‘I was thinking I was going to have to take a pay cut, but it’s something that I wanted to do as a challenge,’’ he says. ‘‘I reckon there are a handful of players back home who could do well here but just don’t want to get out of their comfort zone. I wanted to do it for the right reasons. I wanted to really give it a good go.’’
Before Ellis’s first game with the Tigers in 2009, he was worried about the pace of the NRL and forecast it would take him some time to fit in. Yet he starred upon debut, won the Tigers’ best player award for two successive seasons and, very quickly, established a reputation as a fearsome presence. An ‘‘enforcer’’ - as unlikely as the tag seems, off the field, for such a genial, gently spoken character.
Ellis agrees his personality is at odds with his game. He is mostly a detached observer in the mayhem of a Tigers dressing room filled with boisterous extroverts. ‘‘If I played how I am off the field, I probably wouldn’t do anything,’’ he says. ‘‘I’d just get hurt. Around here, I just sit on the edge and observe and have a laugh along.’’
Yet, when he steps across the line, Ellis ‘‘switches on’’. ‘‘Rugby league is a tough game,’’ he says. ‘‘The players you are playing against want to hurt you, and you’re wanting to hurt them. I think whatever level you are playing at you are hard. It’s just one of those sports you never seem to get through without getting some little knock or injury.’’
Ellis was sidelined earlier this season by a serious ankle injury and a nagging groin complaint. With no family to help him and fiancee Rachel with their 20-month-old son Isaac, homesickness struck. Rachael was returning to England for a mid-winter break and Sheens suggested Ellis go too.
‘‘When things are going the way you plan, you see the brighter side of things,’’ says Ellis. ‘‘As soon as you get a bit of negativity in your life, it’s gloom and doom. That is exactly how I felt. I was homesick and I was missing the family. The good thing was the club picked up on it straight away and sent me home and it was the best thing that could have happened. I’m fresher and fitter now than ever.’’
Life in Sydney is great again. The Tigers have won eight in a row. The sun is out. And, besides, when he got home he found most of the lads were just working anyway. ‘‘The grass always seems greener,’’ he says with a laugh.
Ellis clearly relishes the more attacking role he has been given here by Sheens. ‘‘He’s brought the best out of me, no doubt,’’ he says. ‘‘Not bad running off Benji or Robert Lui every now and then, is it? This group of lads, they’re a special group. They play how they are off the field. They’re pretty tight, pretty relaxed. A lot of the personality is expressed on the field as well. It’s been fantastic to be around such a talented group of players.’’
For how much longer, Ellis does not know. His only plans to go home now are for the Four Nations - and to marry Rachael in December. Yet with the big forward refreshed and ready for battle, Ellis might well have a ring on his own finger even sooner.