Exclusive: Gareth Ellis on retiring too soon, playing without pressure and plans for next season

At the end of the 2017 season a true legend of the game hung up his boots for what he thought was the final time.

Gareth Ellis had done it all, Grand Final winner, England international, three time Player of the Year with Wests Tigers in the NRL, he had even entered Hull FC folklore twice, as the club’s first captain to lift the Challenge Cup at Wembley Stadium, and the club’s first captain to successfully defend that most famous of trophies.

However, despite a stellar career with Wakefield Trinity, Leeds Rhinos, Wests Tigers and Hull FC, it all ended on a sour note with a heartbreaking defeat at Headingley against his former club Leeds in a play off semi-final on his 99th appearance for the Black & Whites.

There was also the notion that maybe this warrior of the rugby league pitch had retired too early, even at 36 years old at the time, there seemed to be more to offer, and when living with regret, you’re a long time retired.

Retirement lasted throughout the 2018 season, even during a period of huge injury problems for his beloved Hull FC, although with at least one extreme cycling challenge, he kept himself fit. But when the call came his way in February this year, with many of last year’s injuries still lingering, finally the boots were laced up again.

First came a game for Hull FC reserves against the reserves for the only other Super League club running a reserve team, his first club Wakefield Trinity. This undoubtedly rekindled the passion, and a week later, with squad number 34 on his back, Ellis re-entered the fray of the elite competition away to champions Wigan Warriors, in which he undoubtedly had a positive effect coming off the bench to help the Airlie Birds secure their first win since a home game against Widnes, after a 13 match losing sequence which had taken in their last 11 games of 2018, as well as disheartening close defeats to Hull KR and Castleford Tigers at the start of this season.

Now, six months later, this inspirational former captain is back enjoying his rugby again, and is definitely looking to carry on in the 2020 season.

When I sat down with him at the Hull FC Elite Performance Centre, the first question was if he was back to being Hull FC player, or is there still something of Gareth Ellis Hull FC reserves coach hanging around there?

His reply was absolutely instant: “No definitely not, from  coming out of retirement thinking it was just going to be for a few weeks and plugging a hole while Scott Taylor was suspended.

“Even afterwards, when Radders said, what would you think about seeing the season out, again probably just to fill in wherever necessary, I suppose I kept my hand in with the reserves for a while.

“But then, the more you have to commit yourself, the more games I’ve played, the more training you have to do to get yourself up to that level, it’s probably just not been viable.

“I also think, with me not living in the city, living outside of town, to be training all day, then to have to wait around, or go home and come back.

“For a man like me, at 38, it’s not ideal to be in the car too long, you soon seize up, so it’s just not been right.

“So Kirk Yeaman who is the conditioner for the reserves, he’s really stepped up and got involved with the day-to-day organising of the lads down here.

“With us full time he’s sort of co-ordinated everything with the rest of the staff, so it has been pretty seamless.

“I still take an interest with the young lads that have been playing reserves, but obviously I think it’ll be a much better competition next year.”

So has he felt a bit like he’s still being coach for reserves players like Connor Wynne, Jack Brown and Kieran Buchanan, when they’ve broken into the first team for a few games alongside him?

He says: “Err I don’t know, obviously I’ve even, barring Connor, I’ve been around most of the other lads who have played reserves as a player, so probably not much changed in that respect.

“But it’s been great to see, obviously it’s been a bit hit and miss with the reserves this year with games probably once a month, then we get a bit of a spate of them.

“I think definitely Kieran’s debut came on the back of his performances with the reserves, he approached it with the right attitude.

“He went back there and played really strongly, and that was really good to see because he was probably the first one to get his opportunity on the back of his performances in the reserves.

“That was really good to see. Then obviously I suppose I’m that sort of person anyway, whether I’m a player or I’m a coach.

“I’m somebody who, I like to think I’ve got a good relationship with the younger members of the squad.

“I’ll talk to them about the game, obviously not as much as what I was doing because I’m trying to concentrate on getting my own game right.

“But yes it is pleasing to see, it’s pleasing that it’s going to be back next year in its full entirety.

“I think we’ll see a lot of players earn the right to play Super League on the back of their performances because they’ll be doing it week in, week out against some of the other players that are in the same position at other teams.”

So is there any news on a contract for next season yet? “No it’s not official yet, I’m still in discussions with the club, we’re pretty far down the line with it.

“I think it’s likely that I’ll lace up the boots again next year. I’ve really enjoyed it, I said all along, I’ve found out, you don’t really understand how much you enjoy playing until it’s gone, until it’s not there.

“Certainly that was the case in 2018, with six months in, you think, maybe I did retire a little bit too early, I even got the opportunity to comeback in 2018 around Magic Weekend time when Yeamo played.

“But then I was maybe just a bit fresh into retirement to go back into it, but then yeah, 12 months later, I’ve come into the team and really enjoyed it.

“I think that’s the thing, there’s a little bit less pressure on me, I feel I’m not putting as much pressure on myself, not being captain and not having that responsibility.

“Now I’m not responsible for everybody else’s performance, I’m purely responsible for my own performance, while hopefully still having an influence on everyone else.”

So what does he make of the quality of the new signings by the club for 2020, and did that play a part in the decision to play on?

He immediately explained: “Yes that’s certainly the exciting part. I think the men behind the scenes, Radders, James Clark, Adam Pearson and all the coaching staff have done a great job with recruitment.

“So yes there is a bit of excitement about being involved next year. I think with recruitment and recruiting so strongly, means the squad might not be as big, obviously it’s a salary cap sport.

“You’ve got to manage it somehow f you want some better players at the top, some of the players at the bottom are going to have to go, as we’ve seen over the course of the last six months.

“So it probably leaves a smaller squad, and I’m not as expensive as I was three or four years ago, so yeah, it’s probably a good fit.

“I want to play and I’m probably a reasonable acquisition for the club in terms of where I sit in the cap as well.”

Now we refer to an injury, close to his eye, and a text from current club captain Danny Houghton, saying he hoped he hadn’t put him off playing next year:

“Yeah that’s right, I’ve been tested a few times to be honest, tested my resolve whether I want to play again with a few bumps and bruises.

“I remember probably a month or two into coming back, speaking to Radders about me coming back and how I was feeling.

“He said the key thing is to not get too disheartened, or too down in the dumps whether you get injured, or whether you have a bad game, don’t take that as, right I’m not playing anymore.

“You’ve got to be aware that those things happen, whether you’re 21 or you’re 38 those things are going to happen regardless, and they do happen.

“I’ve had a few knocks, I did my medial ligament against Castleford, which led to Achilles Tendonitis , and I ended up tearing my calf.

“You always had those initial moments when you thought, right that’s it I’ve had enough, then you sort of get over them in that initial reactive time of a day or two.

“Then you think, come on I can get through this, that’s the same when I think back through all my injuries through all my career.

“When I did my Achilles back in 2015, I was a bit I don’t want to, have I got the energy to go through all the rehab and get over the operation and stuff?

“Then within a day of moaning around and skulking about the house, you sort of get that, well yeah I think I can actually yes, so I decided to give it another bash. It’s been the same again, this time around.”

So speaking about injuries next season, will a full pre-season beforehand help avoid them, or aid quicker recovery?

It’s another instant reply: “I think so yes. I think approaching the year knowing that I’m a player and I’m going to do the pre-season.

“I’ve spoke to Hatto already, the head of performance here, we’ll have quite a structured approach to it, I don’t know if there’s any point me just slogging my guts out from day one?

“There’s probably a better way for me to do it, having done so many pre-seasons, I think this is my 21st season, or it will be next year, so yes there’s probably a better way for me.

“But yes I definitely think I’ll be more prepared. I look back at some of the videos, particularly when I played against Wigan, and the shirt was baggy.

“I hadn’t done any weights for ages and I played just on adrenaline alone and it took me a few weeks to get up to speed.

“So yes, in answer to your question, yes probably with a full pre-season under my belt and mentally approaching the game like I’m a player, yeah I think I’ll be in a better position next year.”

So has Kirk Yeaman also benefited because of stepping up with the reserves coaching? “Yes I think he probably has, he’s certainly done a lot more than he thought he would.

“Yes I think it’s been good for him and hopefully he’s got something out of it, because I think this year for the reserves was all about learning and trying to iron out any creases.

“I’d like to think we’re 12 months down the line on most teams so we’re probably a little bit more prepared to succeed.”

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