Tamati Ellison was a reliable stand-by option when the All Blacks midfield required short-term cover, but the well-travelled utility back can expect to plug holes on a more regular basis at the Melbourne Rebels.
The 30-year-old, who played four intermittent tests between 2009-12, joins his fourth Super Rugby franchise early next month once he completes his second stint at the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan.
Ellison has been alternating with fellow former Hurricane-turned-England and British and Irish Lions playmaker Riki Flutey in his club backline due to the stipulation that only two non-Japanese players can feature in the starting line-up.
However, he is considered a marquee signing for Australia's newest franchise that, in contrast with their four previous campaigns, boasts a back division lacking genuine star quality in 2014.
When the Rebels launched in 2010, flighty English five-eighth Danny Cipriani was the eye-catching import. However, his defensive ineptitude and off-field antics ensured an already sullied reputation suffered in Melbourne.
Talented, though wayward, Wallabies Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor also assumed the pivotal role while experienced former Australian internationals Stirling Mortlock and Mark Gerrard were signed to provide a sense of security.
Ellison, who made his Super Rugby debut for the Blues in 2005 before representing the Hurricanes and Highlanders, has been cast in the role of Mortlock - and may even start in the centre berth previously occupied by the 80-cap Wallaby because he will miss practically the entire pre-season.
"If you're closer to the ball like 12, there's more information to process and direct the team around the field," he said, conceding it was imperative to build a rapport with halfback Luke Burgess - the only other back with test experience - and rookie No.10 Bryce Hegarty.
Former Wallaby Burgess obviously stood out when Ellison scanned the roster he was joining for a season, and accepted he would have to shoulder ample defensive and leadership responsibilities as the Rebels strive to improve on last year's 12th placing.
"I'm happy to lead as best I can and make the guys focus on what they can do on the field.
"I don't know a lot of the guys and going through the names they don't have a lot of Super Rugby experience," he said before accentuating the positive.
"Sometimes the guys that are fresher just do not have that pressure on them and at the end of the day it's still kick, run, pass and tackle.
"If you can do that better than the next guy then you might be right."
With O'Connor and Beale orchestrating the back play, the Rebels built a reputation as a team that preferred to play expansively and while that game plan appealed to Ellison, the vibe from Melbourne suggested a greater focus on defence under new head coach Tony McGahan.
"That's part of the game I really enjoy and I'll be getting stuck into that but there's a few guys out wide that can move so it'll be good to move the ball as well," he said, noting the Rebels' acquisition of former Highlanders teammate and Crusaders finisher Telusa Veainu.
Meanwhile, although Ellison will have limited preparation with the squad before their opening game against the Cheetahs in Melbourne on February 28, he will at least have more time to assimilate than when he joined the Highlanders in 2012 after his original stint at the Black Rams.
"I did a pre-season over at the Highlanders where I only had a captain's run," he said, recalling an ominous debut.
"We had a few injuries in the midfield at the time so I just had to play and mark Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill (Williams).
"It was a wee bit daunting but I think when you start like that there's no pressure, there's no expectation apart from your own and that may be the case this year."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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