IT HAS been six years since Gareth Ellis last encountered the surreal Magic Weekend experience.
Playing a full round of Super League fixtures at one venue over two days, ostensibly to encourage fresh support, is not a concept the Australians have ever felt the need to invite.
So, during his four seasons in the NRL with Wests Tigers, the England second-row would only catch a few glimpses via television of what was happening back in Cardiff, Edinburgh or wherever the jamboree had pitched up next.
Ellis appeared in the first Magic Weekend with Leeds Rhinos in 2007 when they famously got the better of arch-rivals Bradford Bulls after one of the most contentious refereeing decisions in living memory at the Millennium Stadium.
He missed the far less controversial victory the following season due to a broken thumb before winning a second Grand Final with the West Yorkshire club and making his departure for that glorious stint in Sydney where he cemented his standing as one of the world’s great forwards.
Tomorrow marks not only his first return to the Magic Weekend in its latest guise at the Etihad Stadium but also his first genuine experience of another fierce rivalry as he leads Hull FC against Hull KR.
“I had a little bit of a taste of it (Hull derby) but this is the main one,” said the rugged Yorkshireman, having featured in a pre-season friendly against Rovers before injury ruined the start of his Airlie Birds career.
“I’m looking forward to that but really anticipating the Magic Weekend as a whole.
“Obviously, it’s something I haven’t played in for a while and it’s going to be a great occasion.
“I think it’s a fantastic concept, a sort of festival of rugby league where we can get all the games on in one weekend and hopefully encourage people that haven’t seen the game before or watched it on TV to get down and see some.
“It’s such a great spectacle; you get to watch a lot of rugby league in a short space of time and I’m all for it while it’s great for us as players to get to play at such a great stadium as Manchester City’s home.”
Hull arrive in good fettle. They have won seven of their last eight games to shrug off their early season inconsistencies and rise up to fifth while also securing a Challenge Cup quarter-final with Catalan.
The zenith was last Friday’s 26-16 win at Warrington Wolves, the first time they have beaten a top-four side this season, while their only loss in the run was a narrow 28-20 defeat against leaders Wigan.
Ellis has, at last, featured and in three consecutive games now having cruelly broken his foot in the warm-up before the season’s opener at former club Leeds.
It would be too simple to say the 32-year-old’s belated arrival has been the catalyst for such impressive results as that which occurred at Warrington but certainly his presence, along with that of returning stand-off Daniel Holdsworth, has enhanced an already firing side.
The derby, though, is a different entity. Rovers may have only just ended their own barren sequence with Sunday’s win over Wakefield but they tend to save their best for their fierce rivals as the Good Friday destruction at KC Stadium illustrated.
Sidelined Ellis could only sit on and watch that 23-10 loss unfold, the nadir before Hull recovered to plot this current energising run.
“It was frustrating but, to be honest, it was just frustrating sitting out full stop,” he recalled of his enforced three-month absence after returning home last winter.
“It was a very disappointing start to my Hull FC career and not what I wanted but they were the cards dealt and I just had to work hard and get on with it.
“I’d been watching from the sidelines and, as much as I wanted to be out there, once the boys started putting in some good performances that took the pressure off a little to get back as quick. It’s finally nice to be out there with them, though.
“We’ve been building over the last few weeks and even the performance against Wigan I thought they showed signs of improvement there.
“We really came in at Warrington last week believing we could win which, just from speaking to the boys, I don’t think we’d probably thought that in the past.”
The most encouraging aspect for Hull was their durability having overturned a 16-6 deficit to eventually take a narrow lead and then, with dogged determination, crucially hang on for a priceless victory.
They will require the same characteristics tomorrow as they bid to overturn last season’s demoralising last-ditch defeat in Manchester against Rovers.
“It was a very tough game from start to finish, a real grind,” confirmed the Castleford-born player.
“There was periods of the match when I thought Warrington seemed to be all over us but we just toughed it out long enough to get out the other side.
“It was really pleasing to do that but we won’t get carried away.
“We’re heading in the right direction and can enjoy the fact that we’ve gone to one of the big guns and knocked them off on their own turf.
“But we just use it as stepping stone and a sign of progression.
“I’ve good memories of the last time I played Magic Weekend but this is a different kettle of fish now.
“Performance tends to go out of the window for the Hull derby They’ll be up for it and we need to keep improving, hopefully get two points and keep climbing that ladder.”
On his own fitness after such a long lay-off, Ellis added: “I was blowing towards the end of last week’s game but it was one of those where, regardless of how many games you’ve played, you’d be like that anyway.
“It was just a matter of trying to find something when everything else is telling you just to give in.
“I feel all right, though, and am getting fitter each week.”