For years it was Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher, like a couple of deer butting antlers over the All Black halfback job.

Now Marshall's gone it's Kelleher and Piri Weepu duelling to be top dog.

Down Canterbury way, and in parts further north for that matter, there are quiet whispers that there's another No 9 whose name has been spoken more than once round the table of the national selectors.

Tomorrow night, Andy Ellis has another chance to push himself up the pecking order when he lines up behind the Crusaders' pack in the semifinal against the Bulls at Jade Stadium.

You could be forgiven for wondering how this has come to be.

After all, Ellis made Canterbury's NPC team only last year, is in his first Super rugby campaign and has started just five of the Crusaders' 13 games so far.

But, as his most significant early mentor, former All Black Warwick Taylor puts it, he's got something special about him.

Taylor, who played 24 tests and 40 games as a classy second five-eighth between 1983 and 1988, has been teaching physical education at Burnside High School for more than 20 years.

Ellis caught his eye when the-then coach, Rob Grundy, picked the fifth former for the first XV.

Ellis clearly had an aptitude for the No 9 jersey.

His first game at halfback was his first XV trial, having switched from No 8 on the advice of his father.

"Dad said he didn't think I'd be big enough to play No 8 in the first XV," he said yesterday.

Dad was right and the son has not looked back.

He took a year off in 2002 to take up a cricket scholarship in southern England through the Willows club in Christchurch, which was "awesome".

An allrounder, he enjoyed his cricket.

He had four years in the school first XI, played senior club cricket when he returned from England, but the real passion lay in the winter game.

"As a 15-year-old, he didn't take a backward step," Taylor remembered of Ellis' three years in the first XV.

"He was prepared to take on the biggest guys in the opposition. He had skills and confidence. He always had a lot of potential, a very good work ethic and he's a great kid."

Taylor recalls a conversation with his old Canterbury teammates, Wayne Smith and Robbie Deans, now All Black selector and Crusaders coach respectively, a few years back.

"I remember saying we've got a kid who's got something."

Ellis has heard the All Black talk.

It's clear he gets a bit of joshing in that knockabout way of dressing rooms where the camaraderie is strong.

"Before the Super 14, it seemed too far away," Ellis, 22, said of his All Black ambitions.

"But it's something I've dreamed of, as I'm sure a lot of guys do, since I was a young fellow.

"I've still got to do a lot of hard work but it's been a year when I've built a lot of confidence, and feel more comfortable when I'm on the field."

It's all part of the learning process, as is getting used to sitting out games in the name of rugby's modern R word: rotation.

You get the feeling that Ellis, like all young men full of ambition and energy, would like to be playing every week.

Instead, he shares the duties with Kevin Senio, who made the All Blacks last year, and has had his work cut out to keep the young tyro on the bench.

"It has been a bit weird, when you're used to playing rugby each week. Week on, week off is a strange feeling.

"I'm not criticising it, it's just a different way of looking at it and it's something you've got to come to terms with, the professional game being the way it is."

Marshall and Kelleher are the two halfbacks Ellis most admired as an aspiring No 9.

For a young Cantabrian, Marshall was "the benchmark, he was The Man, you always looked up to him".

"And I remember in the third or fourth form I thought Byron was awesome, so strong with such a good running game."

Ellis chuckles now at the way times change. Hero one moment, rival the next, or so it seems.

As for tomorrow night, Ellis suspects the Crusaders caught the Bulls off-guard with their 35-17 pounding in Pretoria on May 5.

"I don't think they were expecting us to be as physical as we were.

"They'll be expecting a bit more physical presence and hopefully we can bring that and outmatch them, and hopefully get a similar result."

That's the thing about the Crusaders.

They're invariably low key.

Ellis is picking up on the family environment several players have talked about as critical to their success.

There's little chopping and changing. New faces are welcomed into the brood and learn the ropes.

And if things keep going the way they are, Canterbury should have another All Black to celebrate, possibly even sooner than even their most partisan fans might think.

* Second Super 14 semifinal, Crusaders v Bulls, Jade Stadium, tomorrow, 7.35 pm