For an insight into what Ellis Genge will bring to the England captaincy and how the ‘mad dog’ became a suitable candidate for the prestigious role, just ask Lewis Ludlam.
The pair have been friends and on-field foes since first crossing paths in a schools tournament 13 years ago. As similarly emotional characters who have matured into leaders, Ludlam – the Red Rose flanker and Northampton skipper – has a clear grasp of the way Genge has matured from being, in his own words, an ‘anti-social angry kid’ into an inspirational talisman.
Prior to his move home to Bristol last summer, the 28-year-old, force-of-nature prop captained Leicester to the Premiership title under Steve Borthwick. Now, the national coach has given him the Test armband for the first time, having opted to demote Owen Farrell to the bench.
When Genge leads England out against France at Twickenham on Saturday, it will represent a glorious ascent to the peak of his profession, from a difficult background on the tough Knowle West estate.
Having emerged as a raw, wild prospect, he has evolved into a mainstay of the England pack and a figure capable of galvanising those around him with his explosive ball-carrying and instinctive knack for connecting with his team-mates.
Ellis Genge will captain England for the first time against France at Twickenham on Saturday
Recalling his first encounter with Genge, Ludlam said: ‘I remember playing against Gengey when we were 14 years old, at a schools tournament. He was a mad dog. He was playing No 8, I was playing No 7, and he was running over a few of the little ones.
‘I think it kicked off in the game. I remember him being in it and there were parents screaming on the side of the pitch. He’s always been emotional and aggressive and I think his ability to control that now and use it in the right way is a real talent of his.’
Asked about how Genge has changed, Ludlam added: ‘He has definitely got control of his emotions way, way better. I remember him being a bit of a loose cannon, but now he knows when to flick it on and flick it off.
‘You see him when he is carrying the ball, he has got that horrible doggedness inside of him and it is emotional and he brings it out of himself. In gaps in the game, his ability to bring himself down and speak and get his messages across is something I think has been really impressive.
‘He’s brilliant. He plays with his heart on his sleeve, when he talks it’s convincing and people can get behind him. He is someone you want to fight for. He’s not someone you want to play against either. He always puts his body on the line.
‘He’s a good mate of mine, so the opportunity to follow him into battle this weekend is something I’m looking forward to.’
Borthwick appointed Genge as his captain at Leicester before the start of the 2021-22 season and it turned out to be a master-stroke, as the loosehead led the Tigers to title glory with passion and supreme authority. That connection between the coach and the front-rower is proving to be a real benefit to England now.
‘You are never going to turn Ellis Genge into a choir boy,’ said Ludlam. ‘But Steve’s ability to bring that thinking side out of him and to control his emotions has just brought the best out of him.’
The 28-year-old is capable of delivering rousing speeches on and off the pitch
The prop has matured from an ‘anti-social angry kid’ into an inspirational talisman
There is clear evidence of the impact that Genge can have, which was perfectly illustrated in Australia last summer.
Riled by a perceived slight from the Wallabies, he erupted in Brisbane and Sydney, to turn the series upside-down. His carries into and through home captain Michael Hooper and huge centre Samu Kerevi went straight into Red Rose folklore. They were thunderous statements from a man who had become a world-class asset.
But behind the scenes, there are telling statements too. Genge is capable of delivering rousing speeches. Ludlam knows plenty about revving up team-mates before big Saints games and when he was asked how Genge lights the collective fuse, he said: ‘Team talks, definitely. The way he speaks about wanting to impose ourselves physically.
‘Emotionally, he’s very good now at just dropping it in when he needs to, with slight reminders in the week. On Saturday, he will be hissing and the boys will want to be hissing for him. The way he speaks and the way he plays work in tandem. He usually speaks aggressively and plays aggressively as well.
Lewis Ludlam is relishing the chance to follow his mate into battle against France
‘He keeps calm in the week. There’s no one in the squad Gengey doesn’t have a good relationship with, doesn’t know about, doesn’t take time to speak to. He wants to look after the boys.
‘People know Gengey’s got your back but if you step out of line or you’re not working hard enough, he will be the first one to tell you. It’s been fantastic.’
Ludlam has not been on a privileged pathway to the England team and can recognise Genge’s feat in becoming Test captain, given his humble background.
‘The fact Ellis has come from where he’s come from and has the opportunity to captain his country in front of all his family and all the people back home, he’s got a chance to make a lot of people proud,’ he said. ‘We want to make it a special day for him. We know how hard he’s worked to get to the position he’s in.’