ANYONE fancying an early bet on the 2014 ‘Man of Steel’ might be tempted to have a little punt on Hull FC captain Gareth Ellis.
Granted, his form – and certainly his fortune – last season would probably deter some from thinking the former England second-row has any chance of lifting the coveted trophy as Super League’s most important player.
After returning from the NRL amid much fanfare, he missed the first three months of the campaign following a fractured foot suffered during the warm-up for the opening game at Headingley.
Ellis eventually debuted and did help Hull to the Challenge Cup final, but he never consistently recovered the sort of high-class displays that had marked him out as one of the sport’s leading players.
However, you cannot keep a good man – or, more precisely, good forward – down and there is a real sense Ellis is ready to make a tangible mark in his second season at KC Stadium.
Still only 32, the reason he is a “former” England player is the fact he opted to quit the international game ahead of last autumn’s World Cup in order to concentrate on getting his game right with the Airlie Birds.
It was a major sacrifice but one he feels is already looking like paying dividends as he gets the benefit of a full pre-season under his belt for the first time in 11 years.
Is the hardened Castlefordian confident he can now recreate the epic performance levels that, during his time with Wests Tigers, saw him twice rated the best second-row in the world?
“That is the challenge for me,” Ellis told the Yorkshire Post.
“I’ve probably not played as well as I’d have liked here and that’s why I chose not to play for England.
“It was a massive decision in a World Cup year, but I knew it’d have had a knock-on effect on me this season.
“It was a tough call but one I felt I had to make in order to give myself the best chance of trying to get back some good form and being a real asset to this side, not just making the numbers up like I felt I did on a few occasions last year.
“JP (Jamie Peacock) springs to mind. He had a first full pre-season in ages last year and really reaped the rewards. I drew a bit of inspiration from that.”
Former Leeds Rhinos colleague Peacock, of course, was shortlisted himself for ‘Man of Steel’ last season, the warring prop defying his 35 years to enjoy his finest campaign in a decade, clearly benefiting from quitting England duty the campaign previously.
Hull, meanwhile, made a significant investment in Ellis with a four-year contract to bring him back from Australia when he had his pick of Super League clubs.
He is eager to start proving he is worth that money and admits, even if he does enjoy a stellar campaign, he will not be tempted back out of international retirement either for a Four Nations Down Under this autumn or a potential Lions Ashes tour in 2015.
“I chose not to play for England in order to get benefits for Hull,” he said.
“If it does work out as I hope, I’d take that as a sign that I do need that little bit of extra preparation. Time will tell whether I’m right or wrong but I needed something to change; I can’t afford to have another season like I had last.”
That finished with an utterly abject and embarrassing 76-18 play-off defeat at Huddersfield Giants, a loss that – after a disappointing Wembley loss to Wigan – rubber-stamped Peter Gentle’s dismissal.
Assistant Lee Radford, the Hull-born ex-prop who only retired two years ago, has been promoted in place of the Australian and brought a new culture to the KC.
“It was disappointing for Pete to be shown the door,” said Ellis, with Gentle also having been one of his coaches at Wests.
“But I think Radders has come in with a new approach and really stamped his authority on the team. He gets that respect from all the players.
“Even as a young coach who’s not been finished playing for long – and someone who’s played with a lot of these lads at Hull – he’s certainly got that respect, built a great rapport and got a good balance.
“At the end of the day, it’s how he prepares us to be on the field and so far I’ve been very impressed with how he’s conducted himself and the way he’s got us training has been brilliant.
“That will, hopefully, hold us in good stead.”
Hull start their league campaign with the visit of Catalan Dragons on February 14, but first comes the small matter of a warm-up game against fierce rivals Hull KR at the KC tomorrow.
So far, they have drawn against Doncaster and lost at Bradford on Sunday, but Ellis said: “Facing Hull KR in the derby will be as near as we’ll get to a Super League game.
“Having been here over 12 months I realise now just how passionate these games are and it doesn’t matter what it is – it won’t be a friendly, that’s for sure.
“These matches mean as much to the fans as much as any other.
“We’ll certainly tick that box if we get the win and it’ll give us the bragging rights for a while.
“We have to be up for it, though, especially on the back of last week’s performance (at Odsal).”
Ellis, who first rose to prominence with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats before winning a Grand Final with Leeds, added: “On paper, we had a good year last year as we reached the Challenge Cup final and top six of Super League.
“We got knocked out, though, in a bad way at Huddersfield and that probably typified our season; we could beat any side on our day and had some great wins but some really bad ones too.
“Narrowing that gap – raising the standard of performance – is what we have to do and the intensity Radders has brought, and the atmosphere created at the club, will hopefully be rewarded in 2014.”
If the Black and Whites can keep Ellis fully fit and firing, those rewards for player and club could be fulsome.