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Ellis Genge on 'growing up' and learning to love scrummaging

Ellis Genge credits Richard Cockerill and Marcos Ayerza with helping him develop at Leicester. Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Ellis Genge is something of a throwback to props of a more vintage era. Questions attempting to delve into the intricacies and shadows of the scrum are met with quick-witted answers by the 22-year-old Leicester front-rower.

His thoughts on the duty of a loosehead contrast between relishing physicality and a crystal-clear awareness of the ridiculousness of some of the situations in which he finds himself.

Take this example:

Q: What goes through your head when you are packing down for a scrum?

A: What? Apart from my spine?

Back in the old amateur days he would have been a terrace hero, a prop who blended into the clubhouse furniture with the odd wise-crack as his paws dwarfed a room-temperature ale. But professionalism barely allows for those characters now; his persona is manifested by wit and bare-nosed physicality. He is, in short, fascinating.

It was in the latter stages of Leicester Tigers' 2016 Aviva Premiership semifinal at Saracens when Genge split Owen Farrell in half with a powerful hit. Name announced. He was soon after included in England's squad for the Australia tour.

Eddie Jones liked what he saw; Richard Cockerill, then Leicester coach, saw a young apprentice built in the mould of the famous ABC front-row days.

But it has not always been straightforward for Genge. He had a reputation as being a bit of a tearaway during his teenage years on Bristol's Knowle West estate; the red mist forever lingered. But in February 2016 he made that decision to leave Bristol -- his world -- to go to Leicester.

He went, in his own words, from being a medium-sized fish in a small pond to a tiny fish in a big pond.

The move paid dividends, but much has changed since he first rocked up at the Tigers' Oval Park training ground. Cockerill was a big draw; his no-nonsense approach appealed to Genge.

Legend has it that Cockerill challenged the young prop to a fight in training. Genge shot back: "Fine, but who will coach the team in the afternoon?"

But Cockerill has gone and Marcos Ayerza, arguably the Premiership's finest loosehead, has retired. Though he is now first-choice, Genge is aware he has plenty of room to grow into despite being without two of his primary mentors.

"Cockerill was a great help, a lovely bloke," Genge tells ESPN. "Very straight with his messages and a top bloke. Ayerza as well.

"Marcos was a class bloke, went on a bit about scrums... but I don't see myself as a senior player yet. I'm not going to give a presentation in front of the group but I'm happy to talk to the boys about how I feel. But it'll be a few more years before I get to that point."

He doesn't yet feel like a senior player, but he has certainly changed over the last two years. Dan Cole has kept his in-game verbal jousting in check, while his rambunctiousness has been channelled into carrying and scrummaging, rather than scrapping.

"I'm a different bloke to where I was a few years ago, I suppose I have chilled out quite a lot," he says. "There are a lot of wise heads at the club. Tommy Youngs was quite fiery but he's been a good boy to learn off and understand how to control that. I'm never going to go schtum, I'm not trying to take it out of my game.

"He loves to portray himself as a big scary bear, but deep down he's the cuddliest teddy bear I've ever met."

Lachlan McCaffrey on Genge

"[But] the experiences, meeting new people... I've done a bit of growing up. I've been a prop for four years now, it's been a bumpy ride. I've come quite far."

Aged just 22, Genge is a relative pup in prop years. Having been a back row up until 18, he was then shifted to the front of the scrum. It is now the day job, but there is a pause as he is asked whether he enjoys what he does, day in, day out.

"I hated it when I started it," Genge admits. "I was 18, a 103 kilogrammes back-rower with no neck on me... and then got my head shoved up my arse for two years. Then something clicks and you think, actually, if I push back, I might be alright. You slowly but surely learn how to do it. I have a lot more to learn, which is exciting.

"When you are thrown into a hole against eight other massive blokes, trying to push each other back, you have to enjoy it or else you wouldn't be doing it for a living.

"I don't know if I have a passion for cracking my spine. I do enjoy it, yeah... I do enjoy it but I don't enjoy it when I go backwards. I have learned to love scrummaging. It's a job... you do have to remember that, and you're privileged to do something you enjoy. You do appreciate it. I am trying to enjoy it more lately and make some memories."

Those memories will include his time with England. Back in 2016 he was taken to Australia in what turned out to be an apprentice role, but in 2017 he was their starting loosehead in both Tests against Argentina.

"It was a good trip, I learned a lot... not as much steak as I thought there'd be," are his concise memories of the June tour and he will inevitably be in the mix for the autumn internationals when they roll around.

But that won't change him. At the moment his time away from rugby is dominated by computer games. When he was younger his mother used to tempt him away from trouble by renting, or buying him a new Xbox game.

"I gamed throughout my childhood," he says. "If I wasn't playing that, I'd be outside playing up."

Fast-forward to the 2017-18 preseason and his main purchase to eat up the dead hours was a new computer. "Life's quite slow," Genge says. "I just get up, go to work, come back, play the computer. There's not really a lot going on.

"I'm buzzing for the new update on Rainbow Six, just bought Battlegrounds -- it's a worldie of a game -- and League of Legends... It keeps me out of trouble."

The routine steers his time away from rugby, but on the field he's still as fierce as ever.

To get a real appraisal of who the real Ellis Genge is, the ex-Leicester back row and good friend Lachlan McCaffrey is perhaps best placed to give an assessment. "He loves to portray himself as a big scary bear, but deep down he's the cuddliest teddy bear I've ever met," McCaffrey tells ESPN. "He's very family orientated and a loyal friend."

So is he the next Phil Vickery or Trevor Woodman? Perhaps a chip off the Gareth Chilcott Bristol-block? No, he's just Ellis Genge, a young prop who is wonderfully unique and going to be a dominant force for years to come.