SEVEN months on from what he freely admits was the nadir of a much-respected career, Hull FC captain Gareth Ellis hopes to experience the greatest achievement of his career.
The revered England second-row feared he might not play again after breaking his foot during the warm-up ahead of his Hull debut at Headingley on Super League’s opening night in February.
Yet tomorrow he could lead the Black and Whites to a first victory at Wembley in their 148-year history and end his own long wait for Challenge Cup glory.
“It just shows how things can turn around,” said Ellis, who had his pick of clubs after deciding to return to England following a celebrated four-year stay with NRL outfit Wests Tigers.
“That night at Leeds was the lowest point of my career and to think, potentially, I might get one of the highest to come in the same season is just fantastic.
“I’m really pleased it’s turned out that way. I was the club’s ‘marquee’ signing so there had been a lot of responsibility on me.
“That’s why it was so disappointing at the start of the season not to be playing.
“I was brought to the club to do a job and couldn’t fulfil that so to now be out there and playing in a Challenge Cup final is a big turnaround.”
Ellis made his belated debut in May and has since proved worth every penny of Hull’s investment, his epic performance in the Challenge Cup semi-final win over Warrington Wolves fully epitomising just why he is regarded as one of the world’s finest forwards.
Undoubtedly, the 32-year-old will be a central figure tomorrow and if Hull’s players can once more follow his inspirational lead, victory over favourites Wigan Warriors could be in their grasp.
Ellis is certainly overdue some success, having been in the Leeds Rhinos side that Hull, ironically, famously defeated in the 2005 Challenge Cup final at Cardiff.
Admittedly, he never envisaged it being this long until his next experience of the game’s most prestigious showpiece.
“I probably got spoilt a little bit in that first year at Leeds even though we lost both the Grand Final and Challenge Cup final,” he recalled, having joined the Super League champions from West Yorkshire rivals Wakefield Trinity.
“I was thinking this is going to happen every year and come around all the time – but I’ve never played in a Challenge Cup final since. It just shows how hard it is to come by.
“You can play in some of the best teams but these can be so few and far between.
“It was my first year at Leeds and they were a big club who’d won the Grand Final the year before, so I was maybe even a little embarrassed to get too excited about it.
“But I’ve learnt to let yourself go. It’s a great week – not just game day – to be really pumped and excited about the Challenge Cup.
“I’ll be telling all the Hull lads, even the younger ones who will be around a while, to really enjoy this.”
Clearly, it has been a difficult campaign for Hull, who have struggled for consistency in the league and only lead eighth-placed Hull KR by a superior points difference.
But Ellis has bought into the vision of ambitious owner Adam Pearson and believes they can eventually become regular lifters of silverware.
“Without a doubt I still believe in where the club is heading from those early days when I was sat on Skype in Australia speaking to Adam Pearson and (coach) Peter Gentle and laying down plans for the future of the club,” he said.
“If I’m honest, I didn’t think it was going to be this season – I probably thought it’d be a building year – but I knew we had the talent that could do that so it’s really pleasing.
“And, for anyone who questioned my decision to go to Hull, I suppose it’s been answered really.
“We’re in the mix for winning some silverware at the first opportunity.”
The dogged resilience, and no little skill, illustrated in that memorable semi-final win over holders Warrington almost served as notice that Hull had, indeed, arrived.
“Barring Wigan and Huddersfield this year, we’ve beaten everyone above us,” continued Ellis, who faces the Warriors for the first time since returning to England.
“Where we’ve struggled is against the sides below us and that’s why we’re not sitting as high up the table as we’d like.
“But certainly we’ve shown we can mix it with the best when we get our brains into gear and that just shows where we are as a club; we’re not quite mature enough yet to show that professional attitude week in, week out and it’s something we’re striving towards.”
He reads nothing into Wigan’s recent blip which has seen them fall away from their League Leaders’ Shield challenge – “they’ve big players who have played in these sorts of games many times recently” – and reiterates the 80 minutes ahead is a “massive opportunity” for the current Hull side.
As for that foot injury, all the more worrying considering he also broke it last season while still in Sydney, Ellis concedes it has made him more aware the clock is ticking on his career.
“I don’t know how long I’ve got but I am fully aware of that,” he said, having signed at the KC Stadium until the end of 2015.
“I still feel pretty good and that’s why it would have been so disappointing if it had finished my career as everything else feels great.
“I still manage to keep up with some of the younger lads even if it takes me a bit longer to recover from games. It (the foot) is one of those things I have to be very careful with now.
“Any sort of pain – fingers crossed I’ve not had any – I have to be very aware of as I don’t want to go down that route again.
“I’ve not altered things but I get more questions from the physios asking if I’m all right all the time.
“If I ever did get any pain it would be ‘Stop. Let’s get it scanned’ whereas, normally, I’d just carry on. You have to be a bit more careful as you get older. The chances to play full stop are becoming less and I don’t want to be spending half of it on the sidelines.”