Gareth Ellis has become one of the best English players to play in the NRL. Described by Andrew Johns as “an outstanding buy” and by Tim Sheens – the Wests and Australia coach – as being “up there with any other player over here,” Ellis has made a magnificent impact down under. I spoke to him for Rugby League World after his debut season in Oz in 2009.
How are you enjoying the wind and rain of northern England as you prepare for the Four Nations?
The weather’s definitely taken a bit of getting used to! I was hoping to catch the end of summer but I think I’ve missed it. I’ve enjoyed being back, though, after the best part of a year – back to what I know and what I’ve been used to for the best part of my career.
How important are the train-on squad sessions? Most of the best players are still on club duty and a lot of the players involved won’t make the final team.
It’s more focussed on keeping everyone ticking over and keeping them sharp. If the whole squad got together after the Grand Final and a significant percentage of the squad had done no training, they’d be playing catch-up and you’d have a problem. It keeps everyone at the same level and we get a lot out of it.
Do you wish you could do what Adrian Morley did in 2005 and sign a short-term deal with a Super League club to play in the play-offs?
Yes, I’d have loved to! It was so disappointing to miss out on the play-offs with the Tigers – we were just a point short and we’d have given it a good go if we’d got there. It would have been great to have been given the opportunity to play in the English play-offs but it might not be very fair on the player who misses out. That happened to Andy Lynch in 2005 when Moz went to Bradford.
Most people will regard England as third favourites in the Four Nations. Does that bother you?
No because it’s justified. You’re only as good as your last performances and ours wasn’t very good. New Zealand won the World Cup and Australia weren’t far off. But it won’t bother any of the England players because we’ve got a great chance to reverse things. That’s the challenge for us.
What makes you believe things will be different this autumn for England?
I’ve been watching Super League from afar and I’ve been really impressed with the young talent coming through this year alone. There are a few players in the train-on squad and a few who played against France [in the mid-season international] who I’ve never even played against. They’ve obviously shot to the heights of Super League pretty fast and if they continue to improve, they’ll be ready to take on the world’s best. Also, I spoke to Jamie Peacock in the year and he was excited about this competition because of how well the team had gelled in France. It’ll be good to be part of a close-knit and tight team who are prepared to work for each other. At the end of the day, we are third favourites for a reason and we have to be on our game and have a desire to win the Four Nations.
Which are those young players who caught your eye?
I was impressed with Richie Myler against France and Tom Briscoe looks a really natural talent. Sam Tomkins has done fantastically well this year as well. They look as they belong in the England set-up whereas I remember when I was first called up, I was in awe of the best players and it took me about ten Tests for me to find my feet and have enough confidence in myself.
But the NRL keeps producing excellent young prospects as well!
That’s it. The Aussies have some great young talent coming through and not just at a couple of clubs – it’s spread through the whole competition. There are so many talented, young players in the NRL who could potentially set the world alight. But some of these Super League kids look like they can at least match the young Aussies.
Tony Smith has hinted that this year’s squad will come from a wider range of clubs, as opposed to most players coming from Leeds or Saints. Is that a good thing?
Yes I think it is. With a lot of players from just a couple of clubs, you’re bound to get some cliques and that’s maybe happened in the past, even though I still think the best players were picked. But players at a lot of clubs have played well this year and it would nice to see some new faces.
What are the major on-field differences between the competitions?
The main difference is that every week is like a derby game. Every game is intense and all 16 teams seem pretty similar. The challenge in the NRL is to play well week-in week-out. You can’t have an off game because you’ll get exposed. But the Super League is moving that way because of the salary cap.
Have you noticed any significant tactical differences between the two leagues?
They’re quite similar. The best teams in the NRL play a very simple gameplan – they’re patient and they grind teams down with their defence and a very good kicking game. It’s a territorial battle and the successful teams tend to win it. Having said that, the Tigers are renowned as being flamboyant but people think our downfall has been us throwing the ball around too much.
What are your views on the two-referee system in the NRL?
You don’t really notice them to be honest. It’s speeded the game up although at the start of the year it was slow because of the amount of penalties but everyone has got used to it now, the penalties have reduced and it’s a quick game. One gets you back onside and the other is floating around the ruck area. Once you’ve made the tackle, he’s shouting your name to get up so you can’t get away with much. It’s turned out to be a good thing, even though they still make mistakes. But I don’t think England has the resources or amount of top referees to do it.
You’ve played 22 games this season in the NRL – nine less than in your last game at Leeds. Will that benefit you?
Yes because I feel fresher. I feel pretty good even though I play 80 minutes a game in Australia. The main difference is the NRL starts in March so you’re not using the first four weeks of the season getting fit. You start the season fully match-fit.
Who will be the Kiwi and Aussie danger men in the Four Nations?
For New Zealand there’s Benji Marshall who I play alongside every week. Sometimes he’s too good for everyone around him! He’s an exceptional talent who can just pull something out of the blue. He can rip teams apart and we have to watch out for him. Before I left I asked him which of his shoulders is bad and he said both. So I’ll be running at each of them. But he’ll probably make me look stupid with what he can do!
Was the try he set up against Parramatta a few weeks ago the most amazing thing you’ve seen on a rugby field?
Well it’s up there! It was a freakish game because there was Benji with that flick pass round his back into the winger’s hand and for Parramatta there was Jarryd Hayne who won ten man-of-the-match awards at the end of the season. He’ll be my choice as the Aussie’s main threat. He started the year at stand-off and got bagged quite a bit but since he moved to fullback he’s been unbelievable. He was the difference between Parramatta or us making the play-offs.
Hayne at fullback demonstrates the depth Australia have because they also have the Golden Boot holder, Billy Slater, as well as Brett Stewart, Kurt Gidley, Preston Campbell, Darius Boyd and Matt Bowen. The size of the player pools is still a big factor in international rugby isn’t it?
Yes, it’s still in their favour. The talent is right across the board with three or four exceptional players available for each position. It’s down to the strength of the competition and the fact that a lot more kids play Rugby League in Australia. Every NRL team has at least one genius. But I still feel very confident ahead of the Four Nations because I’ve seen all the NRL players close up. A lot of English fans and players see them as super human but I see them every week missing tackles and dropping balls. They’re only human and I’ve been getting the message across to the lads that they can be vulnerable.
Would it benefit our national team to have 10 or 15 Englishmen in the NRL?
Without a doubt, although it might weaken Super League. I wish I’d have realised years ago how vulnerable the best players can be and that they’re not super human. It would be great to see a lot of Englishmen in the NRL doing well because in the past our best players haven’t had the recognition they deserve because the national team hasn’t performed to its potential. A lot of people in Australia don’t see much of Super League and don’t realise how good some Super League players are.
We don’t see too many English soccer players going abroad either. Do you think there’s something in your average Englishman that makes him want to stay in his comfort zone?
Possibly. Maybe it’s in our culture that we’re British, we’re proud of it and we want to stay here. It was very hard for me to leave and even now I know I’ll come home after my three years with the Tigers. Having said that, there’s plenty of English backpackers in Australia who obviously don’t mind life abroad!
Is money the main reason? Are you on less money than you were at the Rhinos?
Personally, no. I’m probably doing better than I was at Leeds but that’s partly down to the exchange rate. It’s two-to-one now, not three-to-one, so it’s better to earn dollars and convert them to pounds. One major factor is that a lot of Australians come to England and the middle-bracket players become top-bracket players in England and are paid accordingly. I think that’s why people think players are better paid in Super League. But the middle-bracket players in Super League might not be offered much in the NRL. If you’re good enough, you’ll earn the big money in either competition.
Who are you in Australia with?
I’m with my girlfriend, Rachel. We made a joint decision to go and the Tigers have bent over backwards to make both of us feel welcome. She’s pregnant now so we’ll be having an Aussie baby soon!
So in 20 years time if you have a son asking you if he should play for England or Australia, what will your advice be?!
[laughs] England without a doubt! The baby will be two and a half when we come back so it should pick up a Yorkshire accent!
Will the Four Nations be weakened with the inclusion of the French?
If international rugby is to get stronger, we need more nations to be involved so I think it’s a good idea. It’s a good opportunity for France to show they’ve developed and hopefully they’ll field a strong team. As for the format, I’m in favour of us playing each other once because twice was too many. As for the standards, time will tell. It will be tough for France but rugby union did it with Italy and now they’re more competitive.
Would you like to be able to play in the mid-season international with France?
In an ideal world, yes. I’d never turn down an opportunity to play for my country but it’s probably not necessary for me to play. Jet lag would be a big problem as well – I used to see Brent Webb go down under for the ANZAC Test and he was like a zombie for a couple of weeks after!
As well as Marshall, you’ll be up against another Tiger in the Australia coach, Tim Sheens.
He’s a great coach and has coached more first-grade games than anyone else. He was the obvious choice for the job and I’ve enjoyed playing under him. He’s an intense coach who loves his Rugby League and he can talk about it for hours. He’s seen everything in the game and has re-invented himself as a modern-day coach. He’ll be looking forward to coaching the Aussies and it will be great to come up against him.
Is the standard of coaching, conditioning and facilities higher in Australia?
The difference is there isn’t a big gap between the top and bottom sides. It’s hard for me to compare because I played at Leeds who had great facilities and I was speaking to their conditioner, Jason Davidson, recently who told me they’ve gone up another level with what they do. Leeds and the Tigers are on a par. One big difference is pre-season when you’re trawling around in the mud in England but in Australia the conditions are great.
How will you look back on your first season in the NRL?
It’s gone well. I was apprehensive at first because I thought it might take a year to adapt but I’ve really loved it and a lot of that is down to the lifestyle. Being happy off the pitch has helped me on it. If I can sum my performances up this year, I think I’ve been consistent, I’ve not had many bad games and I’ve developed as a player. All in all, I’ve had a pretty successful year.
Winning the Tigers’ player of the year is a fantastic achievement.
It was great to win especially when you look at the quality in the team like Benji and Robbie Farah. I was really priveliged to play alongside them and it’s flattering to win an award like that.
How long did it take you and Rachel to settle in?
We got used to the lifestyle as the year went on and that helps you move away from what you’re used to in England. At first we were thinking about what we’d have been doing back home but you lose that and get used to a new routine. When you first get there, it’s like a holiday because you see all the sights etc. We’ve had a lot of family over on various different visits so there’s always something to look forward to which has been good.
Were you worried about Rachel settling in?
Yes that’s the worry because it was always going to be easy for me going straight into a job and making 25 friends straightaway. I was worried she might be left out but she’s loved it. She was a lady of leisure at first, sitting round the pool when we first got there then she got a part-time job and is friendly with some of the other players’ wives. She’s had a great time and has made some friends she’ll probably have forever.
How have you adapted to Rugby League being so big in Australia?
It was a bit of a shock at first. I knew it was big but didn’t realise how big. You open a paper and there’s loads of Rugby League in it. There are live games on four days every week and you’ll see rugby players on TV adverts promoting something like a packet of crisps! It’s Rugby League overload over there. It’s more intrusive for some players but they enjoy a higher profile. Sydney isn’t too bad, though. You can go out and not be recognised which is how I like it.
How have the media treated you?
I think they were ready for me to fail at first so they could write that another Englishman was on his way home but, to be fair, they’ve been great with me. They’ve taken really well to me and haven’t written much that’s been negative. I must have done something right!
Does it frustrate you that they have such a low opinion of English Rugby League? Gus Gould recently called Super League ‘park football’.
It really does frustrate me and I talk highly of Super League when players mention it to me. A lot of them like it and have ambitions to play there but some talk about it as somewhere to go when they’re past it and that annoys me because I think, “you’re not that good over here, so you won’t be over there.”
Do Aussies still talk about Adrian Morley because he made a massive impact with the Roosters.
Yes they do! They love him and think he’s a god. He was really feared in the NRL and he conducted him really well off the field as well as on it. People always speak highly of him over there.
A number of great English players have played for Wests. Do the fans still remember then?
Yes they do and they tell me that they rate Ellery Hanley as one of the best players they’ve ever seen. They also talk fondly about guys like David Topliss and Garry Schofield so they’ve had some good ones. I’ve had a lot to live up to and I think they like the fact there’s another Englishman in their team. The fans have taken to me really well.
What do you make of the NRL’s recent off-field problems? Why have there been so many unsavoury incidents?
People go out and have a drink and sometimes things get blown up out of proportion. One guy was drunk and filmed on someone’s mobile – that could happen to anyone – and it ended up as big news. We are role models for kids though, and we have to set an example by behaving in the right manner. But just being drunk shouldn’t get you the sack. It can be intrusive in Australia and small things become news when they wouldn’t in England. Some players have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time and superstar players have become targets for some people.
You’ve now seen State of Origin at first hand and how it benefits the Australian national team. On that basis, should we bring back Yorkshire v Lancashire?
I’d like to see it back but can we fit it in? Origin is unbelievable over there and it’s a great spectacle. If we could find room then we should certainly consider it.