Media men may be already selecting their squads for next summer’s Lions adventure in Australia but one member of the last tour party provides the perfect reminder of just how much can change between now and next spring.
Past achievements and present-day form are being discussed in newspapers, on web forums and on TV stations, as are experience and potential, power and pace, temperament and togetherness, yet one aspect of selection is simply impossible to predict: the fickle finger of fate has to feature somewhere along the line but no one knows where.
In 2005, the rugby gods didn’t smile kindly on Harry Ellis but four years later luck went his way and the Leicester scrum-half found himself on the plane to South Africa.
Ellis earned a Lions spot three seasons ago despite not being involved on the international scene just days before the start of the 2009 Six Nations. The then 26-year-old was due to play for England’s second-string Saxons on the Friday before the start of the tournament only for in-form rival Danny Care to suffer a freak injury on the Tuesday.
Care turned his ankle in shocking weather conditions at a training camp and suddenly Ellis was back in the mix despite not having worn his country’s colours since March 2007. With the uncapped Ben Foden having been picked to cover the No9 slot from the bench against Italy, Martin Johnson promoted his old Tigers team-mate straight to the starting line up and Ellis took it from there.
He went on to be one of England’s standout performers that spring, scoring two tries against the Italians and starting all five fixtures as the Red Rose finished second behind Grand Slam winners Ireland. Ellis impressed Sir Ian McGeechan enough to see off the likes of Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Dwayne Peel for Lions selection a month after the end of the Six Nations as he achieved something which seemed so unlikely after spending close to a year recovering from a serious knee injury in 2007 and 2008.
“Selection for the Lions came off the back of not even being involved in the England squad,” said Ellis.
“Danny Care was playing really well but he slipped on ice and got injured at Pennyhill Park. I was playing for the Saxons on a wet, horrible night against Portugal in Stockport and suddenly I was starting a Six Nations match the following week.
“I didn’t even think about going on the 2009 Lions tour because I didn’t think it was achievable. I knew Mike Blair was a great player; Tomas O’Leary was playing really well for Ireland; then there’s Chris Cusiter; even Danny Care for England; plus Dwayne Peel and Mike Phillips. But then (Lions assistant coach) Graham Rowntree said ‘They’re talking about you’ and you think ‘Bloody hell, this might actually happen’.
Few people had Harry Ellis down as a Lion just months before the 2009 tour
“In the 10 months I had off with the knee injury I picked up against Bristol in May 2007, I switched myself off from the playing side of things. You don’t even watch all the games, you just concentrate 110 per cent on getting fit and getting back to that level that you were at.
“I suppose it is in the back of your mind a little bit but I just worked so hard on and off the field to get back and I was lucky to have such good medical people and conditioners around me to guide me. There’s a lot of luck and a lot of chance involved in rugby: I took the opportunities that I had but I also had a lot of luck. It’s just fate, really.
“I had the drive to get back playing but the Lions honestly wasn’t part of that drive. All I wanted to do was get back playing for Leicester. I was just on a crest of a wave by the time the Lions were picked.”
Ellis came pretty close to falling off that wave just before it reached its peak, though, as he was stretchered from the Twickenham turf in the final Six Nations game against Scotland with a nasty head injury.
But having heard that Lions selection was suddenly a real possibility, 5 foot 10 inch, 14 and a half stone Ellis was determined to play through the pain barrier when a potential Lions trial against 2005 Test Lion Peel popped up a fortnight later.
“Shortly before selection in 2009 I spoke to Graham Rowntree and he said ‘you’re in with a shout, they’re talking about you’.
“I knew that I had to keep fit. I got knocked out against Scotland in the last game of the Six Nations and was concussed. I knew I had to try and be fit for the club game two weeks later and that was against Sale where I was up against Dwayne Peel.
“I had about 15 stitches in the back of my ear but I was desperate to play in that game. They taped my ear down and I played quite well. I just had to play as well as I could to put my hand up for Lions selection.
“That was my key game. It was a game I was focusing on, I played well and it went from there.”
Ellis achieved something he never thought was possible
Ellis’ rapid rise from outcast to contender last time out was in stark contrast to 2005 when he finished the international season as England’s number one No9 – starting four Six Nations ties – yet missed out on Sir Clive Woodward’s 45-man squad.
The youngster was in sparkling form for club and country but his youth counted against him as Matt Dawson’s experience saw the veteran World Cup winner join two Welshmen and a Scot in New Zealand.
“I was probably in a better position to be picked for the 2005 Lions than the 2009 Lions,” added Ellis.
“In 2005 I was fit all year, I was getting picked for England and was doing well. I was playing international rugby, I knew I would be in the running and it was something to aim for.
“People were talking about me in the press and I thought ‘I might be in with a shout here’. You try not to get your hopes up because it’s a team sport and people have to pick you but during the Six Nations I played pretty solidly.
Ellis was first choice for England before the 2005 Lions tour
“In the end they picked Matt Dawson, Dwayne Peel, Chris Cusiter and Gareth Cooper. I thought I had quite a good Six Nations to put myself in contention but they went with Dawson and what they knew.
“It was frustrating because I was playing ahead of Matt but they went with his experience. The other three guys that they picked were less experienced than him so I could see what Clive Woodward was doing in wanting to go with some experience.
“I didn’t really think too much about the Lions after that so to go on the 2009 tour was the icing on the cake for my career.
“I’ll always have that memory of being part of something that only happens once every four years. It’s an amazing feeling to have been part of it. It really was an honour, especially as I retired a year later.”