Rugby League legend Ellery Hanley speaks about his Yorkshire roots and Dancing on Ice
PUBLISHED: 23:34 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013
He was one of the all-time rugby greats who powered teams to glory. Now Ellery Hanley has won over a very different audience. He tells Chris Titley how it happened PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOAN RUSSELL
For rugby fans who'll forever treasure the memory of Ellery Hanley thundering down the wing on his way to another blistering touchdown, it was an eye-popping moment. There he was in a sparkly silver top instead of a mud-spattered jersey, gliding and twirling to the sound of Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run.
Ellery's debut on ITV1 smash Dancing On Ice heralded a reinvention as startling as John Major's change from grey man to devilish seducer. Hanley was the toughest competitor in world rugby league, the mud-and-guts sport which southern softies don't care for. And yet Yorkshire's Man of Steel had re-emerged as the Man of Sequins. Did he worry about the reaction to his new look?
'No. Everybody knows the show is glitter, is sparkling, is Lycra - they know that it's tightfitting clothes, your lunchbox is going to be squashed up and everything.
'If it was the first Dancing On Ice, people might have raised eyebrows, but this is the fourth series. It's a massive show everybody knows what Dancing On Ice is about.'
When producers first suggested he take part, Ellery didn't execute a triple toe loop jump at the chance. They brought him to a rink at Alexandra Palace in north London. 'I saw these people of all different ages going forwards, going backwards, crossing over - I thought "this is definitely not for me."
Then a few days later he agreed to do the series, viewing it as a personal challenge which, he thought, would take him out of his comfort zone. And he was right. 'Technically it's the hardest sport I've ever done. I've been involved in a lot of sports, squash, tennis - controlling the ball in golf and snooker is hard - but this is by far the hardest. No question about it.
'I have great respect for Strictly Come Dancing but let me tell you it's nowhere near as hard as doing it on ice.'
From last November he was in intensive training at rinks in Bradford and Manchester. 'I had a few tumbles, I had a few stacks. For one split second if you lose concentration you'll fall over.' But balance and agility were key to his rugby game - there must be some transferable skills, surely? 'None. It's so different. You're on a thin tiny blade on each foot. Transferring weight on a sixinch sole in a rugby boot is so easy. On the ice you feel like you're going to tip over completely if you lean in - you're nervous as hell because you think you're going to fall.
Ellery invested the same 100 per cent commitment in Dancing On Ice that he gave to rugby and soon found he loved it. There's great fellow-feeling and friendship between competitors, he says - he practised alongside former Emmerdale star Roxanne Pallett and Coleen Nolan.
We were speaking early in the series and despite his infectious, evangelical enthusiasm for skating, he was adamant he wouldn't emulate rugby union star Kyran Bracken who won in 2007. He said there were only a few potential winners and he wasn't one of them: 'Ray Quinn is outstanding. He's a trained ballroom dancer; he has the right posture, right style. On the first day he was spinning!
'With the girls you've got Jessica [Taylor] who's skated before, you've got Zoe [Salmon] who's skated before - they've all done competition. I'm so far behind, but to me I just enjoy it.'
And he's happy to be seen in those outrageously camp skating outfits. 'You've got to embrace it. It's part of the razzmatazz and that's what makes the show. But I won't be wearing them off the ice.'
Twirling about in front of millions of Saturday night viewers is a long way from Ellery's Leeds roots. He doesn't like to talk about his family apart from to say they have always been supportive, and is reluctant to discuss his childhood other than to confirm it was dominated by sport. But someone must have shaped him into the astonishingly dedicated and inspiring athlete he became - a parent, a teacher perhaps?
'To be honest I didn't have any heroes,' he says. 'Most people have heroes and they always say they looked up to so-and-so.
'But I had an instinct inside of me from a young age as a competitor. Being disciplined went back to when I was 13 and 14. I never drank alcohol, I never smoked. And that didn't happen because I wanted to be a sportsman, it happened naturally.'
Ellery was gifted at many sports but found his natural home in rugby league. He began his professional career at Bradford in 1978, aged 17, setting a club try scoring record in the 1984-85 season. His phenomenal strike rate remained through spells with Wigan, Leeds and a couple of Australian clubs, and the honours and international caps rolled in. He was successful as a coach too, taking St Helens to a Super League triumph in 1999 having taken charge of Great Britain five years earlier.
Ellery's most recent job in rugby was as coach to Doncaster. He guided a very young, small squad to two finals and promotion last year. 'What people don't recognise enough is that what we achieved at Doncaster equals anything I achieved as a coach anywhere else,' he said. He walked away from the job with 'massive regret'.
'The club wasn't financially secure. It wasn't viable for them to continue to pay me so I had to release myself from the club.'
Turning 48 this month, he says he has no plans beyond Dancing On Ice, aside from enjoying himself. Which, Ellery being the man he is, will involve a lot of moving around - whether it's cycling, running or squash. Now based in both Manchester and Leeds, does he consider himself a Yorkshireman?
'Yes, probably because I was born here. But there's no drama with me about where anybody's from. It doesn't matter if someone's from Yorkshire or Lancashire. People are people.'
He's certainly won a legion of new fans nationwide through his ice dancing performances. And many of them will agree with judge Ruthie Henshall's description of him as 'a hunk of strength'. The good news for his admirers is that he's available. So is he looking to settle down with a special someone?
'Something like that happens naturally. It's something I don't look for. You know when you find that special person in your life; you want them to be your soul mate, your best friend, your lover, the person you want to trust through your life. That person will come along and you've got to just bide your time and make sure you get the right person.' Several million viewers will be hoping it's them. He laughs: 'You are flattering!'