Ellis mounts strong defence as France show a steely side

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It has become a habit of the French rugby team to attend their post-match press interviews in tuxedo and black tie, in readiness for the banquet later in the evening. And they always have at least one "rosbif" on the menu - David Ellis, an English asterisk punctuating the Gauls.

Ellis has been France's defence coach since September 2000, a direct counterpart of England's Phil Larder, who was himself appointed by Sir Clive Woodward to follow a trend set in Australia. Larder described Ellis last week as a "one-off", and it is not a term the 46-year-old from Leeds is in a hurry to quibble with. "It could be for a number of reasons," said Ellis, in a faintly amused tone.

Larder is part of what he calls "a fraternity of ex-leaguies" - Australia's John Muggleton, Mike Ford with Ireland, Clive Griffiths in Wales and Grant Doorey in Italy among them - who meet for a beer after matches, and swap notes about forthcoming opposition. Ellis operates outside this group, partly as the result of a nomadic career. From what he admits were modest playing days in rugby league - "I wasn't much good with the ball, but I knew how to tackle those who were" - he coached unfashionable sides in Australia and France, then switched to union with Racing in Paris and Bègles-Bordeaux in the late 1990s.

Bernard Laporte, the France coach, recommended him to Gloucester while Philippe Saint-André was director of rugby there, and Ellis continues to commute between France, Kingsholm and Leeds. Last Thursday, as is his wont, he was at the Zurich Premier-ship club to supervise a defensive session, before flying back to Paris to take his second of the week with Laporte's men. "It's very hard, but I like doing it," said Ellis. "It keeps me fresh, bouncing ideas off different people."

Neither Ellis nor his boss, Laporte, is taking victory over Scotland this afternoon for granted, but most observers expect France to be playing for the Grand Slam next Saturday night. England's visit to Paris will pit the Yorkshireman, Ellis, against the Lancastrian, Larder, for the seventh time, with the score standing at 4-2 to the Red Rose, in two senses. Larder admits to "a bit of ill feeling" concerning his rival. During the routine exchange of niceties following England's Six Nations win at Twickenham last season, Larder was presented with a French pin, which he placed in his lapel. Ellis, according to Larder, was given an England tie in return - and threw it on to the floor. "I don't remember it," said Ellis, "but if I upset Phil, I apologise."

Having got the story off his chest, Larder praised his opposite number. "I don't really know Dave, but I respect what he's done. There's no doubt that defence is one of the major factors of France's success, and for him to have that quality of work was a bit special. They've never been noted for their discipline and commitment, and to defend you need a lot of discipline. It's helped by the fact that they've got such a mobile back row, but it needs coaching, and he's done a top job."

England failed to score a try against the French in the World Cup semi-final, but won 21-7. So far in this year's Six Nations, France have conceded two tries to Ireland, one to Wales, and shut out the Italians. Ellis says there is more to defence than the try count, such as preventing penalties in the zone of the goal-kicker.

He has given France the defensive basis for a fourth Grand Slam in eight years - a feat achieved only once before, by England in the 1920s - but their attacking has been fitful. Does Ellis agree that Les Bleus have been blowing hot and cold? "We feel we've been blowing cold all the time," he said. "But we take a lot from how England performed in the World Cup - not playing particularly well, early on, but winning. With France, you know there is always something extra there, waiting to come out.

"We won't treat Scotland any differently to all the teams. We haven't even spoken about England yet, though they have always been in the back of the mind. During the World Cup we put 40 points on most teams, and it gave us a false sense of security. Now we've taken a leaf out of England's book. We want to go into the match against them with four victories. Otherwise it will mean nothing to us."