THE grieving widow of a York Rugby League star today told of her devastation at his sudden death at only 41.

Mel Ellis, the widow of St John Ellis, said: "No words can ever explain what we are feeling at the moment."

She said the former Great Britain winger would be "desperately missed" by herself and their two daughters, Indyia, eight, and Maia, seven.

Mr Ellis died of a suspected heart attack after leading a pre-season training session with Doncaster Lakers, where he had been head coach since 1999.

Relatives spoke of a man who always had time for everyone, loved practical jokes and was the life and the soul of the party.

Meanwhile, tributes poured in from the world of Rugby League, to a man who went from playing the amateur game in York to scoring 40 tries in one season for Castleford, playing in a Challenge Cup final, and representing Great Britain.

Paul Lumby, of York Acorn ARLFC, said: "He was a shining beacon to a lot of other kids."

THE world of rugby league was today mourning the loss of the York family man who rose to international success.

St John Ellis collapsed and died suddenly from a suspected heart attack on New Year's Eve, after leading a pre-season training session at Doncaster Lakers.

Mr Ellis was the sport's longest-serving professional coach when he died, aged 41. He had played for many top teams since his first professional days for York, and was capped for Great Britain.

He also captained Australian team South Queensland Crushers.

Mr Ellis was a member of the Castleford side which lost to Wigan in the 1992 Challenge Cup final, and in 1993-94 he scored 40 tries in just 41 appearances for Castleford. His three Great Britain caps came in the early 1990s.

Paul Lumby, joint boss of York Acorn amateur rugby league club, said: "He was a shining beacon for a lot of other kids. He was fit and healthy and played the game at the highest level.

"He has proved, not just as a player, but as a coach, that you can come from the amateur game in York and go on to bigger and better things. He turned Doncaster around into a very competitive side.

"To be struck down at the age of 41 is very tragic. Obviously, my thoughts are with his family."

As a tribute to him, Doncaster Lakers' club chairman John Wright has pledged to achieve the dream he and Mr Ellis shared - that of taking the side into Super League.

Mr Wright said: "It's a great shock to us all.

"He was training with the lads when he had some sort of seizure. His heart stopped and he never recovered. We had the physio there and other trained people, who tried to give him mouth-to-mouth straight away.

"He was taken to Pontefract Hospital very quickly and given electric shock treatment, but it was no good.

"You wouldn't believe it. There wasn't a fitter coach in the game. He was a

fitness fanatic, who never asked any of his players to do something he couldn't do himself."

The club's website had the words: "We'll remember you, St John Ellis 1964 to 2005" at the top of its home page.

Mr Ellis broke into professional rugby league when he trialled for Hull Kingston Rovers against York. Both sides liked what they saw, and York snapped him up.

A friendly match against Castleford led to him moving to the West Yorkshire side, before he went Down Under with South Queensland Crushers. On his return to Britain, he played for Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. He scored his 1,000th career point when he was with Hunslet.

He broke his leg at least twice and his wrist, and it was a broken leg in the mid-1990s that effectively ended his playing days.

But by then, he was already assistant coach at Doncaster Lakers, and took over as head coach in 1999.

THE family of St John Ellis spoke today of their shock at the sudden death of a man who was "as fit as a fiddle".

Relatives were flying in from Spain, as well as from Bristol, Manchester and elsewhere in the UK, to join their close family in York.

Within hours of his death on Saturday, his many friends were deluging the family with messages of condolences.

His wife, Mel, and their two children, Indyia, aged eight, and Maia, nearly seven, meant everything to him. They attended most of his games.

Mrs Ellis said: "He is going to be desperately missed by his daughters and myself.

"No words can ever explain what we are feeling at the moment."

Nephew and fellow Doncaster Lakers rugby player Gareth Lloyd said: "It was family and sport with him.

"He was a York man. He only moved away for the rugby. He was my hero."

Mr Ellis kept in contact with his enormous family - he was one of nine brothers and six sisters - and relatives were stunned by the suddenness of his death.

"It was a shock," said Mr Lloyd. "He was as fit as a fiddle. As well as playing football for two teams and coaching rugby league, he went to the gym and watched his diet."

Relatives spoke of the man who always had time for everyone, loved to play

practical jokes and was the life and soul of the party.

They called him "the best" and said everyone had a kind word for him.

They described how he enjoyed a drink and a sing song with his mates, and how he was a fun-loving man.

St John Ellis grew up in Fulford, went to Fulford School, and started his rugby league career with amateur club Southlands and joined York before moving to a higher level.

A competitive performer in all his sports, he played football up to his death for two pub teams in Castleford, one on Saturdays and one on Sundays. He was also a good snooker player and golfer.

Mr Ellis had plans to take ambitious Doncaster Lakers into Super League, after spending years contesting the National League One play-offs.

The coming season was to be preparation for the big push in 2007, when Doncaster Lakers hope to have their new stadium ready.

When not on the sports field, he worked as a plasterer and, more recently, as a salesman.

Updated: 12:03 Monday, January 02, 2006