Hull FC captain Gareth Ellis admitted the realisation his brilliant career is over hit him harder than expected after Friday’s heart-breaking Super League semi-final loss at Leeds Rhinos.
The former Great Britain star hoped to bow out in fitting style by winning the Grand Final this Saturday, claiming the club’s first title since 1983 and completing an historic double after August’s Challenge Cup victory.
However, Ellis’s dream – and that of the Airlie Birds – was shattered as Hull fell just short 18-16 in an epic contest at Headingley.
Having lost at the same stage to Wigan Warriors 12 months previously, it was yet more agony in this competition for Lee Radford’s side who had overcome a 12-0 deficit to lead 16-12 before Liam Sutcliffe’s decisive try.
Instead, Leeds face Castleford Tigers – Ellis’s hometown team -– and he conceded: “It’s disappointing; it’s what I was dreaming of all year to make that journey to Old Trafford but it just wasn’t to be.
“I thought we didn’t play particularly well, especially in that first 20 minutes.
“Leeds had the better of the opening exchanges and they built on that a little bit.
“But we did come into it, played some rugby and put some points of our own on the board but it just wasn’t enough.”
Asked if it had sunk in that was, then, his final game of a stunning career that began with Wakefield Trinity in 1999, he conceded: “To be honest, I’ve been preparing myself the last couple of weeks with how games have gone; it’s been like knockout rugby.
“I thought I had been prepared for it but when that final whistle went and I obviously knew what the score was it all hit home I’ll never get chance to do that again.
“That is disappointing but I can’t have had a much better career than I have had and I’m real thankful for that.”
Ellis’s career has, indeed, been truly superb, a fact acknowledged not only by the ovation he received from Leeds fans on Friday – the club he graced for four years after leaving Trinity at the end of 2004 – but by colleagues, opponents, coaches and supporters from here, Australia and throughout the rugby league world ever since the match.
The formidable second-row, who has played mainly No 13 in recent years, enhanced his reputation as one of the modern era’s greatest forwards during four seasons with NRL club Wests Tigers after leaving Leeds in 2008.
Ellis then helped take Hull to new levels, famously leading them to their first Wembley win last year before retaining the Cup.
On Friday, his sheer desire and determination was perfectly illustrated when the 36-year-old chased down the breakaway Jack Walker – half his age at 18 – to ruin the Leeds full-back’s hopes of a try and then even recovered in time to help deny Brad Singleton.
Ellis had already scored himself and made a couple of breaks in that second period as he did everything possible to rescue the game, leaving many wondering why he is now becoming Hull football manager and not playing on in 2018.
He said: “I’m happy with my performance but the bigger picture was getting the win and we didn’t. My misfortune is Rob (Burrow) and Danny’s (McGuire) fortune, though, and I’m really pleased for them now they can go there and hopefully get the win.”
It would have been legendary half-back Burrow staring at retirement today instead of Ellis if Hull had won but, with 34-year-old McGuire – who joins Hull KR in 2018 after an entire career at Rhinos – he now aims for an incredible eighth title with Leeds.
Ellis shared embraces with both at the final whistle and said: “It’s a real honour to have played alongside them and I have a couple of Grand Final winners rings (2007/08) myself most of which is on the back of those two and how they have played in the big games.
“They were big for Leeds as well tonight (Friday) and I’m sure that experience will serve them well next week. I’m real proud of all the clubs I played for. I got to play with some fantastic players.”