From Pro12 cellar-dwellers to Celtic kingpins: The unsung coach who turned Connacht into Europe's most skillful team
Published 09/06/2016 | 17:53
It’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a long and glorious season for Connacht rugby and their skills coach, Dave Ellis, is sitting outside in the Galway sunshine.
One thing that the New Zealander learned immediately after arriving in Ireland alongside Pat Lam in the summer of 2013 was that the weather out west doesn’t conform to standard patterns. A spell of sunshine – no matter how prolonged it may appear – ought to be savoured promptly because you are never more than an ominous cloud away from needing to sprint back to your car for an umbrella.
But Ellis has earned his moment in the sun.
He isn’t as well known as Connacht head coach Lam, but the New Zealander’s fingerprints are all over the province’s surprise surge to Pro12 glory this year.
The clue is in his title.
Ellis’ job within the Connacht set-up is to improve the players’ skill level regardless of position. He trains a tight five forward the same way as he does an outside back – identical handling drills are used and every player is expected to be able to pop up in the line after a turnover and distribute the ball sharply outside to a waiting team-mate.
“As far as I'm concerned tight five forwards have two arms and two legs like everybody else,” Ellis says.
“If you look at basketball you have guys over 7ft tall and they have more dexterity and nimbleness than I ever had. So I don't dwell on forwards or backs, I treat them all the same.”
A self-described 'rugby bum' in his playing days, Ellis has been coaching almost 30 years, mostly in New Zealand but also in Argentina and with USA Rugby.
He spent 11 seasons working at the prestigious International Rugby Academy in New Zealand as a skills coach, where the world's top players come to learn the game from coaches like Graham Henry and Wayne Smith.
It was there that he met Pat Lam. The Samoan was at the academy giving a talk, where on off-hand remark from Ellis about wanting to spread his wings as a coach led to him moving halfway across the world to Galway.
He didn't know it then, but Ellis was embarking on a journey unlike any we have ever seen in rugby.
A week after Connacht secured their first major trophy with an emphatic 20-10 league final win over Leinster, Independent.ie enquired as to whether he had been basking in the glory of a job well done after the province’s famous win.
“I’ve actually already started planning for next season,” he says.
No champagne brunches or liquid lunches around Galway to celebrate the season – Ellis is already thinking of how to make the team better.
“I started planning for next season before this season was finished,” he continues.
“I formulated some details. It is always in the mind. I've got a few thoughts on things we could work on. We still need to get our decision making a bit sharper.
“Analysis is huge at this level. Everyone is probably already cutting us apart to try and figure out what we are doing.
“I’ve done my report that I will hand into Pat [Lam] and then I will start pencilling down some thoughts. When we go into our first coaches meeting in four or five weeks time I will know what I want to talk about.”
When the Connacht staff do meet up for their inaugural session this summer, they will need a fresh set of targets given what was achieved last season.
Pat Lam is on the record as saying that one of his goals was to make Connacht the best counter-attacking team in Ireland and on the evidence of the season finale, he fulfilled his edict.
Furthermore, the manner with which the westerners shredded the Leinster defence at Murrayfield was enough evidence to tell us that Ellis has carried out his brief too – front five forwards Tom McCartney and Aly Muldowney were putting width on the ball with handling that was every bit as slick as the backs outside them.
Departing second row Muldowney is the perfect example of how Connacht's players have developed under the current coaching staff. The regularity with which he slips in at first receiver and the ease with which he pulls the ball behind decoy runners to players wrapping around marks him as a quasi-playmaker as well as a solid player in the tight.
Ellis thinks that players like Muldowney thrive when allowed to focus on their skills because it frees them from the talent-stunting role of merely being a bulldozer.
"Aly enjoyed it [the skill work] because it was a refreshing change for him to not only be used as a battering ram," Ellis says.
"That is a bit of a pet hate of mine. I think it comes down to the philosophy of a coach. If that works for a coach in their game plan then there is nothing that I can really do about it. For me, I think that is a bit one-dimensional."
Connacht's transformation from Pro12 cellar-dwellers to Celtic kingpins didn’t happen overnight – as Lam obsessively states, it is the by-product of a three-year ‘process’. Ellis and Lam arrived after Connacht had finished eighth in the Pro12 in 2013 and they would end up two places worse off than that in year one of the new regime.
Aly Muldowney has thrived under the Connacht coaches
Granted, imports like Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney were standouts from the moment they arrived for year two, other players have noticeably grown over the last three seasons.
Ellis admits that it took the team a while to get comfortable with the training techniques that he and the other coaches were using.
"I was probably a little naive," Ellis says.
"I went to Pat with a few things that I thought we should do and he kind of pulled my head in a little bit and told me to hold back a bit. We weren't great at the beginning I must admit.
"Handling drills were poor but what the players did have was a willingness to learn. When you get a guy like John Muldoon at 33 still willing to practice his passing, having guys like that makes things really easy."
To understand Connacht's newfound style, it is best to actually see Ellis on the coaching paddock. A simple philosophy, articulated to a group of young players during a drill at the International Rugby Academy highlights two things: that the idea behind Connacht's high intensity skill-based game is simple, while the execution is anything but.
It requires total concentration, razor sharp hands, the commitment to get back in the line after a turnover or a kick and the aerobic fitness to do so.
Ellis' directions to his players back in New Zealand sound like the message he likely preaches to his men in Connacht.
"To push our skill level harder, we are going to push across and get some width, some real width. Then our skill level has to be high. Why? We have a shorter space between us and the [touch] line so we need to be sharp through the hands - bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.
"If you can master being wide and flat and being able to get through the hands quicker, what is that going to do in a game on a turnover ball? There is going to be a hole because we are operating right on the tackle line."
Watching that mini-tutorial and hearing those words, a picture forms in the mind's eye of Muldowney and McCartney, of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki or of Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy, linking beautifully right on the gain line to put someone through a gap.
Ellis doesn't tolerate the usual excuses used in the northern hemisphere to justify risk-averse rugby - 'I've always felt we've let rugby guys off the hook, you need to take the conditions out of it' - and he is part of a culture in Connacht where people feel the same.
The weekly workload of players illustrates their commitment to all parts of the game.
"Every player at the club, whether injured or not, has to produce a skill plan for the week on a Monday morning," Ellis says.
"Aly’s [Aly Muldowney] for example might be to do with his lineout and scrummaging work but it might also include some high ball catching and some quick hands, some running lines and some distribution work. All that would be in there too. There would be some skills that they would do with me and there would be some that they would need to do on their own as part of their training week."
Connacht will have to replace Robbie Henshaw in the team next season.
Connacht are quickly learning that it is hard to keep everyone together after achieving success. Just like Munster and Leinster before them, they have lost key men in the aftermath of lifting a trophy. Henshaw, Muldowney and AJ MacGinty are all leaving from the playing side while backs coach Andre Bell has decided to return to New Zealand to be with his family.
Ellis has another year on his contract but admits that he might follow Bell home after his Champions Cup experiences with Connacht next season - although he didn't rule out being part of an Ireland set-up were Pat Lam to ever get the top job.
When asked whether the current coach, Joe Schmidt, could have the team playing a more expansive style, Ellis is diplomatic.
"You could get me in trouble with Joe here," Ellis laughs.
"Look at the All Blacks, they throw the ball around. Joe’s difficulty at international level is that he doesn’t have the players for the same amount of time that we do. It has taken two years to get Connacht to this stage – and I still think we can get better – but it takes a lot of hours. Joe never has those hours. It is pretty hard to focus on handling then."
There is an interesting nugget of information regarding Irish rugby that is illustrative of the current landscape - according to the team websites, only one of the province's have a designated skills coach.
That isn’t to say that the other provinces don’t have skillful players – because they do – or that other coaches in Ireland don’t work on their players’ skills – because they do too – but it is telling that the team who officially tasked a coach to work on that side of the game, lo and behold, ended up being the most skillful team in the country.
The other teams in Ireland are playing catch up, because Ellis and the Connacht coaches aren't done yet.
"If we can’t sustain the team at this level then we aren’t doing are job properly."