England and Wests Tigers forward Gareth Ellis believes having record numbers of NRL-based players in this year’s England squad has given his team the confidence needed to “break down the mental barrier” and defeat the Kangaroos in Saturday’s Four Nations final.
Ellis, who has recovered from the recurring back injury that kept him out of last weekend’s 28-6 defeat of New Zealand, is one of a quartet of NRL stars who have featured in England’s Four Nations campaign. Fellow Yorkshiremen Gareth Widdop (Melbourne) and Jack Reed (Brisbane) have combined with Chris Heighington (Tigers), while St Helens and England prop James Graham will link up with the Bulldogs in December.
A growing sense of self-belief has been evident among the England side as the tournament has progressed, with the host nation recording wins over New Zealand and Wales, and running Australia close at Wembley.
Ellis, who has been named Wests Tigers Player of the Year in each of his three seasons at the club, believes his England team-mates have gained confidence in their own ability by seeing him and other English stars such as Widdop and Sam Burgess emerge among the top performers in the NRL.
“Just having a few of us who have played over there helps England break down the mental barrier when it comes to playing Australia,” Ellis says. “We know that week in, week out we’ve tested ourselves in the NRL, and the other English players have seen us do well over there and that gives them a lot of confidence against the Aussies. There’s a really good feeling and some great team spirit around the squad this year.
“Even though we lost to Australia at Wembley the boys came off knowing that if we fix up a few things we could make it a much tighter game and come out on the right side of the scoreboard on Saturday.”
After being involved in a string of disappointing England performances at the 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four Nations Ellis concedes that, in previous years, his side gave the Kangaroos too much respect going into big games, but insists that things have changed.
“In the past we’ve been guilty of being in awe of Australia,” he admits.
“It used to be the case that England sides were almost (mentally) beaten before they stepped onto the field, but now there are a few of us doing well in the NRL, and we’ve realised that we (England) aren’t as bad as we thought we were, and they (Australia) aren’t as good as we thought they were.”
After blazing a trail as the first big-name Englishman in the NRL since Adrian Morley’s six-year stint at the Roosters, Ellis is no stranger to banter from his Australian team-mates about the failures of England on the international stage. But, he agrees, it’s mostly justified.
“I think Australians don’t respect England enough, but that’s purely because of our lack of success,” Ellis says.
“International rugby league should be the pinnacle of the sport and the top echelon of where everyone wants to be. It has fallen away over the last few years because it hasn’t been competitive enough, but now it’s picking up again. New Zealand have been growing stronger and if England can be successful again, we’ll go some way towards reviving international rugby league.
“To win at the weekend would be brilliant. We’ve been building up to this over a number of years, and we would need to stick at it and keep progressing, and then I think we’d really get the respect we deserve in Australia.”
While he would love nothing more than to return to Sydney a winner, the ever-modest Ellis promises that if England claim the Four Nations title on Saturday, he’ll resist the temptation to gloat.
“It would definitely make my life a lot easier if we win - I get a lot of stick about the fact England have not won anything for a while,” he laughs.
“I’m not one to rub it in, but it would certainly put a smile on my face when I get back to Sydney.”