Belfast Telegraph

British and Irish Lions: Connacht forever be tattooed on Dave's heart (and leg)

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Connacht left its mark on Dave Ellis, both figuratively and literally. The New Zealander misses the place he called home for almost four years when he helped turn the province into a force last season; it comes to him in fleeting moments as he remembers Galway and its people.

If he needs a reminder, he can look at his right calf where he proudly wears a tattoo of the Connacht crest and the inscription: Pro-12 2015/16 Winner.

His role in that success can't be understated. It's easy to forget, given how badly things have gone since he left, but the westerners' skill levels last season were exceptional as they deservedly claimed the Guinness PRO12 title by outplaying Leinster at Murrayfield.

His work in the west of Ireland caught the eye back home, and last summer the Auckland Blues approached him to come and work with their players as the skills coach. He approached Pat Lam who agreed the opportunity was too good to miss.

After life as a rugby nomad, he had secured his first home job in professional rugby.

A rural boy, the big city Blues represents a real change for Ellis, but it's one he's relishing. Not that he's forgetting his second home.

"I loved it," he says of his time in Ireland and Connacht's march to the title. "The more I look back on it, the more little memories come back. Things you take for granted, it's really nice... just walking down those cobbled streets in Shop Street in Galway, you know?

"The highlight was the way we did it and it was great to see the way the (2017 winners) Scarlets did it as well: it was very similar - a little bit of a blueprint there, you know?

"It's right up there for me, it's probably the highlight of my career.

"It was just a good bunch of guys, nice guys and a great occasion. I love that backs against the wall, against-the-odds stuff.

"This job probably came off the back of Connacht to be fair. I'll be forever thankful of that."

On paper, he faces a vastly different challenge. While Connacht are often forced to take players discarded by other provinces and turn them into professionals, the Blues have the pick of the capital city to choose from and the rich production lines of skilful, athletic players of all shapes and sizes.

The Auckland-based franchise, who face the Lions this morning, have a reputation for highly-skilled under-achieving. It's a frustration for Ellis.

"Talent's everywhere if you look hard enough," he says.

"There's a lot of talent in Connacht as well. I guess this talent (here) gets a bit of a higher profile, that's the difference.

"I have been frustrated from the skills side of things. It's that natural thing that you talk about, there's natural skills and then there's skills under pressure. It's a bit frustrating. They're good boys though. There's some characters. There's a lot of potential, but you have to realise it at some stage. You don't want to die with potential in you, do you?"

Much is made of the disparity in skills between New Zealand and the northern hemisphere, but Ellis sees flaws with the locals too.

There is no doubt that some of his players, like the brilliant Ioane brothers, Rieko and Akira, are supremely talented but he sees their limitations too and is working hard on their games.

"It's a tough question to answer," he said of the skills gap.

"Last weekend we had some kids here for a session, our second-tier schoolkids who are not the real good guys. I was impressed with some of those boys, but it's the same problems that you have everywhere in the world. It's when you're doing it under pressure, it starts to fall apart; just like everyone else does. They probably have that initial kick that gets them seen, but it's the polish that we still need to work on.

"Usually in New Zealand that happens at All Black level. The Connacht boys were very coachable and Pat's message was pretty clear. So you had a bit of a chat amongst the coaches before you went out on the training pitch. By the time you did that you knew what you were delivering."

He's gone from working with one legend of the game in Lam to another in Tana Umaga.

"He's different from Pat. But he's good in his own way," he says of the former All Black captain who is a controversial figure back in Ireland.

"He understands what he wants us to do, and where we want to go. He's wonderful with the players. The players really look up to him, and the same as all of us he can get a little frustrated up in the stands when the little things go wrong."

Unlike Ellis, Umaga brings the weight of his caps with him into a dressing-room and he concedes that it's a challenge sometimes to win players over given his relatively low profile.

"It's an advantage really. That's where guys like me struggle. Dave who?" he shrugs.

"You get into that situation and that's harder, where 'T' can use it to his benefit. Because of that the boys have immediate respect straight away.

"You just hope that something clicks in training that can win a couple over, or say the odd thing that gels, and just work off that really.

"Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it doesn't happen until you're two seasons in."

Something clicked with Connacht, but since he's departed, the province have endured a difficult second act.

Lam will be replaced by another New Zealander in Chiefs coach Kieran Keane. Ellis has met him and hopes he can restore good times.

"Sometimes a change is as good as a rest," he says. "You see things through different eyes. He might able to develop the game in a different way from the way we were going."

His passion for Connacht burns through. So much so, that he used indelible ink to signify the indelible link.

"Yeah, it meant that much to me," he reflects. "I'll never be embarrassed about that or anything, because no matter what happens with Connacht in the future, on that day in Edinburgh, we were bloody good, and we played a really good style of rugby."

Belfast Telegraph

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