FOR someone who thought he would never become a professional rugby league player and was initially paid just £60 per week, Gareth Ellis has certainly done alright for himself.
The Hull FC captain will tomorrow celebrate his testimonial match as he prepares for his 17th season in the sport, safe in the knowledge he is one of the finest players of his generation and revered not only here but in the demanding world of Australian football, too.
It is a far cry from the ex-England second-row’s first awkward days making his way in the game, almost by chance, at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats who fittingly play host to his current employers tomorrow.
Ellis, shortlisted for the Golden Boot as the world’s best player after winning his second Super League title with Leeds Rhinos in 2008, told
“I’d played for Yorkshire Under-18s but most of the best players from that team had already been picked up by Cas or Bradford, while Danny Maun, who’s at Hunslet now, went to Wigan.
“But Wakefield had just got into Super League and John Harbin was doing the rounds trying to put an academy side together there.
“He invited a few down to train and I’d just finished college at the time so was at a bit of a loose end.
“I thought I’d give it a go. I wanted to be pro’ but did think my time had passed.
“I went down there with no contract for six months. Then one of the apprentices – Tom Haughey – who was travelling in from Keighley asked if he could go part-time as it was probably costing him more to get there than what he was getting paid.
“That opened up an apprentice slot and so on July 15, 1999, I signed my first contract.
“It was for four years on about £60 a week. In the September, Andy Kelly was giving me my Super League debut against Wigan and Jason Robinson.”
The 18-year-old still did not think he was anything special.
“Even the following year I’d still go and get changed with the apprentices until they said ‘Get in here!’” added the Castlefordian.
“I wasn’t one of the better players but I always had a good attitude; I trained hard and they probably rewarded that.”
Despite his modesty, Ellis was soon making waves and, after captaining Trinity in 2004 when they defied the odds to reach the play-offs, their illustrious neighbours made a move.
A six-figure fee was agreed – a handsome return for their initial £60 weekly outlay – and Ellis was on his way to Leeds.
“I’d had a really good year – we beat Hull in first round of the play-offs and just lost to Wigan – but as the dust settled I just thought where’s my next move,” he added.
“I had a year left, wanted to see where Wakey were going and was reluctant to sign. On the back of that, if they could get a fee for me, it could be for the best to leave then.
“I was all set for Bradford but with the fee it became a stumbling block. So, I was going to play another year at Wakey. I was happy to do that – they’d been great for me – but then Leeds came in and it’s funny how things worked out.”
Ellis, who made his Great Britain debut in 2003, suffered the disappointment of a Grand Final defeat actually against Bradford in his first season at Rhinos and a Challenge Cup final loss, too, versus Hull.
“But I’d played two finals when the majority of time I was happy just not getting relegated at Wakey,” he countered. “So, it was not all doom and gloom and I still thought the Leeds team was on the up.
“The following year in 2006 we didn’t make either final but, as coach, Tony Smith was really good, one of the best I’ve had. His strength was his attention to detail and never slacking on his expectations of you.
“You could do something really good but if it wasn’t in line with what he expected, he’d tell you.
“He’s probably the only coach I’ve had where I’ve felt he’s watching
Most Leeds players were as they went on to win back-to-back titles under the cerebral Australian in 2007 and 2008.
With Ellis – so purposeful and strong-running – having now established himself as a leading international second-row, he then opted to move to Australia where his performances had been drawing attention from both Manly and Wests Tigers.
He opted for the Tigers and duly played himself into the Sydney club’s folklore, uniquely winning their player of the year award in three consecutive years.
The ‘Pom’ had not only mastered Super League but also the most testing environment of the toughest league in the world.
Ellis, now 33, admitted: “It suited me playing over there.
“It is really intense and every game is must-win. Each is scrutinised pre-match, during and after. All are live on TV.
“It was a bit of a shock at first but it brought the best out of me.
“I am someone who arguably leads a bit of a boring life – when I’m at rugby I’m all about that and give everything to be the best I can be. The game being more structured over there helped.”
Ellis earned the respect of not only his Wests colleagues but the entire NRL competition.
After four years there, he decided to come home ahead of the 2013 campaign, having his pick of Super League clubs. It has not been easy at Hull, though. Last season, the Black and Whites finished a woeful 12th although Ellis was outstanding, benefitting from his decision to quit the international scene ahead of the 2013 World Cup.
He remains hopeful there will be greater success this time around but first there is the business of his testimonial.
“It’s quite fitting to go back to where it all started,” admitted Ellis. “Wakefield really looked after me. I don’t think I’d have got that opportunity anywhere else and I’m forever thankful.”