Ellis Genge: ‘Not everyone’s going to like you – you’ve just got to be yourself’

Certain perceptions can be hard to shake. If Ellis Genge had a quid for every time he has been called a hothead or a potential liability on social media, he could retire to his own tropical island. “People on social media still throw out comments about things they’ve seen five years ago,” murmurs the Leicester and England prop. “Everyone says: ‘He’s got such a bad track record.’ I don’t know if it’s my problem that people are still that blind and don’t do their due diligence.”

On the eve of the Six Nations, with England preparing to enter the Caledonian cauldron of Murrayfield, it is easy to understand his mild frustration. The other day, even before Owen Farrell’s latest injury setback, none other than Sir Clive Woodward was tipping Genge to lead England into the 2022 championship. Two years ago, in the corresponding fixture, the latter also delivered the late winning try which clinched a narrow visiting Calcutta Cup success.

With his front-row colleague Joe Marler in Covid isolation in recent days it could yet be that the 26-year-old loosehead again finds himself in the eye of the storm. He should be a genuine working-class hero: the boy from the tough side of Bristol who has transformed himself into a follow-me leader for club and country and a doting father. Instead he finds himself battling the prejudices of those still stubbornly judging a book by its occasionally rough-arsed cover. “I appreciate that people probably think there’s still a hot streak there,” he says. Knowing pause. “They can have a crack if they want.”

Boom-boom. As his well‑publicised flare-up and yellow card at Wasps this month demonstrated, no one is entirely perfect. Controlled aggression can be the finest of lines. That said, there is much more to the street‑smart Genge than the stroppy image he once cultivated. “I used to have a face on all the time and go around pushing and shoving. Now I’ve learned to keep that edge without running around causing loads of little scuffles.”

Back in the day on the gritty streets of Knowle West there was less obvious restraint – “I was a bit of a livewire when I was younger” – but the scraps, teenage arrests and dyspraxia which scarred his adolescence have given him a perspective they do not teach in academy classrooms. Not only has it made him one of Eddie Jones’s favourites but it has also forged a strong desire to blaze a trail for those from similar backgrounds and to demonstrate that the road to Twickenham can start anywhere.

The task of selling rugby to council estate kids – “You can’t tackle people on concrete” – instantly becomes a whole lot easier when they can see truly diverse, wide-ranging England teams incorporating players such as himself, Courtney Lawes and Kyle Sinckler. In Genge’s eyes there has been discernible progress lately. “In terms of expanding the game it’s definitely got better. I think people now realise you can find a diamond amidst the dirt in those places.”

And while family priorities primarily explain his impending move back “home” from the east Midlands this summer, he also feels a duty to be a role model for his old south Bristol community. He has regularly helped out in charity kitchens and gone out of his way to assist the disadvantaged. “For me the whole ordeal around coming from that sort of area is so important. To be able to empower other youngsters to come through in the same way I did and let them know it’s possible. You’ve got to live it and breath it to understand the characters that come from those places. They’re hearty, salt of the earth. Everyone’s on the same page, no one thinks they’re better than anyone else. Everyone gets served the same pint, so to speak.”

All this is exactly why Twickenham’s mandarins should pay heed to Genge on the subject of rugby’s class divides. While he has not yet watched Stephen Merchant’s Bristol-inspired Outlaws – “My Dad says it’s funny” – he is a similarly keen-eyed student of the societal roulette that shapes so many youthful lives. “Rugby’s weird, isn’t it? It’s got such a big grassroots culture but I’ve had hundreds of messages and emails from people asking me how they can get their kids spotted. In football it feels like there are stepping stones from one level to the next. It’s widely scouted and so accessible.

“In rugby it feels like there’s a really wide base at the bottom but the funnel just gets so narrow towards the middle in terms of how you progress.”

The more messages that flood in, the more he wonders if there is a major blockage somewhere. “I’m like: ‘Jesus, surely there are scouts at these games? Where they’re made aware of the process rather than having to message people like me?’ I guess they’re thinking: ‘Is it worth it if these kids aren’t going to get spotted?’ It’s hard for them to see a light.”

Having scrambled his own way to the top, though, via Old Redcliffians, Hartpury college and the England age-groups, Genge would recommend his sport to anyone. “It’s the traits it gives you as a person, the respect you learn within the game.” That said it has taken him a while to work out how best to prosper on his own terms. “For a while I filtered myself quite a lot so you didn’t really see an authentic version of me.

“As you get older you realise you can be yourself. There are just boundaries and ways you have to operate and respect people. Some people call it ‘fitting the shoe’: acting a certain way and all that. But you don’t have to tone it down in terms of your personality. Not everyone’s going to like you, you’ve just got to be yourself and be respectful of others. I think rugby does a really good job of showing people how to operate.”

In his case the arrival of his son, Ragh, now 16 months old, has also been a mellowing influence. “I quite like just coming home and seeing my boy now. It’s probably where I get my peace. I can just switch off from rugby in general … it’s been a massive help.” Sure, but what happens to his Zen mindset if opposing props start dishing out some choice verbals? “If you’re going backwards someone is always going to give you a bit of a chew out in terms of getting in your ear. It’s part of the game, isn’t it? You’ve got to give someone some grief if you’re on top of them.”

So, hypothetically, might he be looking to push that specific button if he were a Scottish opponent next Saturday? “I think it’s quite a weird way of looking at things: to try and wind someone up. You can’t really get away with that sort of stuff nowadays, can you?” Another pause. “I don’t think I’m that much of a nuisance any more.”

With 31 caps already banked this is a big year, either way, if Genge is to establish himself as an automatic England World Cup starter. And if anyone can help him achieve his dreams, he says it is probably Jones. “He’s just an honest bloke. If you get your head down, graft, give your all and make the right choices, he leaves you alone a bit more. If you’re pretending to do those things he smells it right away. He sees right through the bullshit. He’ll go: ‘Did you try your hardest there? Are you doing your best?’ He’s just a very good operator up top.”

Yes, but how does he think England will do this year? “I hope it’ll be better than the last one. What did we finish last year? Fifth? Jeez. It goes without saying we want to do better than that.” And his own over-arching ambition? “I want to be the best. I don’t do it for much else, to be honest. I just want to achieve everything I can in the game. That’s the only motivation I’ve got. I’ve always been told that props come into their prime at 27 or 28. Or even 30. I’ve got ages to go, I’m a long way off it yet. But it’s my ninth or 10th year in the professional game. I’ve come across a lot of challenges, I’ve learned a lot and I’m ready for more or less anything that could be thrown at me.” Starting at Murrayfield next Saturday.

Ellis Genge is a Land Rover ambassador. Visit landrover.co.uk

Comments are closed.