A look at England's future backs

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Professional rugby is a week to week business, its focus firmly fixed upon the next match. Certainly there is no lack of immediate relevance in Saturday's clash between Newcastle and Leicester, perched immediately behind early front-runners Sale and Gloucester as the Zurich Premiership table begins to take on a more meaningful shape.

But for those who like to peer a little into the future, there is the chance to see England's likeliest 2007 World Cup half-backs. Newcastle's outside-half Jonny Wilkinson, still feeling his way back from the injury that cost him most of last season, and Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis will be opponents at Kingston Park, but the odds are that they will be England team-mates soon possibly within the next two months.

Ellis, 22, was anointed leader of the next generation when chosen as third scrum-half, behind veterans Matt Dawson and Andy Gomarsall, for England's tour of Australia and New Zealand in the summer, and has moved further up the pecking-order following Dawson's withdrawal from the England elite squad. He is eight years younger than Gomarsall, the present incumbent.

More importantly, he is playing well enough not to need either the withdrawal of others or long-term development considerations to advance his cause. While unruly hair and a ready grin confer a slightly Just William-ish air the best scrum-halves generally have an impish streak these qualities are now leavened with a mature dynamism.

England coach Andy Robinson will doubtless have taken detailed note for next month's internationals against Canada, Australia and South Africa. He will also have noticed that his youthful contender is firmly rooted in the week to week: “Of course I want to play for England who doesn't?” says Ellis. “But my main concern at the moment is playing well for Leicester.”

In this case, there's no doubt this is more than routine professional piety. Ellis may be English rugby's future, but he is also a throwback to the past the player who grows up in a rugby community, supports its club and joins it when he becomes an adult. His father and brother both played for the Tigers and he says: “I didn't think about joining anybody else.”

After catching the tail-end of Leicester's great years he played 30 minutes as a replacement in their second Heineken Cup triumph he coped well with the relative adversity of the past two seasons and is now enjoying the style of rugby espoused by new backs coach Pat Howard: “He's opened our eyes to new ways of attacking, giving us the license to spin the ball and go for tries. It's working well so far.”

It certainly is. Leicester's bonus points from all three victories, plus one from a narrow defeat, mean they are level on points with Gloucester in spite of winning a game fewer. Ellis says: “It is much easier to look good when everyone around you is playing well.”

He'll admit that it was frustrating to go on tour with England and not play an occupational hazard of the modern truncated tour but says: “I felt privileged to be there. It was a great experience to be with that group of players and to see how things are done at international level. Going to Australia and New Zealand showed me how good those teams are and the level you have to achieve in order to play against them. That can only be done by graft and hard work.” It should not be long before he can test those findings as a participant rather than spectator.

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