Tricolore experience colours Ellis approach as Cherry and Whites seek European glory

Gloucester have inside information on their opponents in tomorrow's decisive Heineken Cup encounter.
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The Independent Online

When Bernard Laporte, the bespectacled coach of France, first asked Dave Ellis for his opinion of Tricolore rugby, he might have expected a diplomatic answer. He was, after all, considering offering the man a job. Instead, he received both barrels. "Your players cheat, they're dirty and the referees have it in for you," came the reply. "If you're serious about fulfilling your potential in the international game, you have to change." Such naked honesty might have earned Ellis a visit to the guillotine. Instead, it earned him a packet.

When Bernard Laporte, the bespectacled coach of France, first asked Dave Ellis for his opinion of Tricolore rugby, he might have expected a diplomatic answer. He was, after all, considering offering the man a job. Instead, he received both barrels. "Your players cheat, they're dirty and the referees have it in for you," came the reply. "If you're serious about fulfilling your potential in the international game, you have to change." Such naked honesty might have earned Ellis a visit to the guillotine. Instead, it earned him a packet.

Ellis, a hard-bitten rugby league type from the northern shires, has been on the payroll of La Federation Française de Rugby since the autumn of 2001, having spent the previous year working for nothing while Laporte rejigged the budget to free up some resources. It has been money well spent. Thanks to their resident Englishman, the French team are now bang up to speed with modern defensive theory and practice and are very nearly as law-abiding as some of their predecessors were criminal. They are no angels, of course; the likes of the Biarritz flanker Serge Betsen and the Toulouse lock Fabien Pelous have a warrior streak the width of Rhône. But they understand the value of discretion, too.

And Ellis understands them. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an Englishman who knows more about the dynamics of rugby on the far side of the Channel. All of which gives Gloucester hope in the build-up to tomorrow's pivotal Heineken Cup pool match with Stade Français, for Ellis also happens to be the specialist defence coach at Kingsholm, that great stronghold of the West Country game, where the locals crave European success more deeply than any set of supporters in the kingdom. Should the Cherry and Whites fail to achieve the unlikely, by progressing to the knock-out stage at the expense of the Parisians, it will not be for the want of an inside steer.

"It's an interesting one, this weekend's game," he said. "Stade Français are not your usual French club. They don't come from a rugby heartland, but from Paris, where the traditions of the sport mean little to the average man and woman in the street. Lose a game of rugby in a town like Gloucester, and anyone associated with the team who pokes his head outside the door gets asked a million questions about how and why. If Stade Français lose a game, nine-tenths of the people who live in Paris will not even notice. This is why they're so driven by the Heineken Cup, so desperate to win the tournament and take the trophy home. To establish a real club rugby culture in Paris, they need success on that scale.

"So yes, they will be difficult opponents for us, because this competition is their priority. But how will they play it? We know exactly what we have to do: we must win the game by at least eight points, and score four tries to get the bonus point. It could turn out to be more complicated, but that is the basic requirement. And them? Do they come here and defend, or do they come and play? There are risks both ways. Personally, I do not believe any of the leading French club teams can defend for 80 minutes. It's not in their mindset and anyway, they don't employ defensive coaches. I'm the only one in the country, and I work with the national side. There again, if they attack us they might turn over some possession and get caught out.

"We were in a similarly awkward position when we played that famous game against Munster at Thomond Park a couple of seasons ago. They had to do A, B and C to go through; all we had to do was stop them. And we couldn't. Munster got some early momentum behind them, the pressure intensified by the minute and we fell apart. If Stade decide to shut up shop, which flies in the face of their nature, they could have the same problem. The French have a phrase for it. They would say Stade Français have their arse between two chairs."

As a general rule, Ellis is an open, honest, straightforward sort and when something gets on his nerves, he says so. There have been a couple of examples of late, not least England's treatment of Henry Paul, the Gloucester centre, during and after the Cook Cup defeat by Australia at Twickenham last November, and his own failure to make the cut for this summer's British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

To take the second issue first, Ellis cannot fathom for the life of him why he was not at least considered for the role of second defensive coach - a position that was ultimately offered to Mike Ford, who works with Saracens and Ireland. "Phil Larder was always going to be the senior man and I had no problem with that," he said. "The question surrounded the No 2, and after a successful run with France I believed my credentials stacked up pretty well against those of everyone else. Yes, I thought I was good enough; yes, I was hugely disappointed not to get a mention."

He was hugely disappointed for Paul, too. Like most union professionals with a background in the 13-a-side game, Ellis holds Paul, a brilliant league international with New Zealand before jumping codes, in the very highest esteem. When the Gloucester centre was substituted after 24 minutes of the match with the Wallabies it betrayed, in Ellis's view, a basic ignorance of Paul's gifts and methods.

"I told Henry when he got back here that he had been picked for England on the basis of how he had played for Gloucester, and that he shouldn't change a thing. There is no point selecting a player of his ability and then asking him to do completely different things in order to fit into an existing system. England should have adapted their game to allow him the opportunity to exert maximum influence. I think there was a fair bit of panic behind the decision to substitute him, and I don't believe he was given a proper explanation as to why he was dragged off so early. He's bounced back well, but I still feel disappointed for him."

In a little over a week, Ellis will switch his focus from club rugby in England to the Six Nations Championship, which France won in Grand Slam style last season. "I'll pop back to Kingsholm on a Wednesday if there's a Premiership match on, but I joined up with Gloucester on the understanding that France had first call on my time," he said. "I love working with the French players. Right from their earliest days they are encouraged to experiment, to play with freedom. No restrictions are placed upon them. When they get to representative level, they bring a fantastic range of skills with them.

"In a way, the French job was an easy challenge for me to meet. I've always been a Francophile - I love the wine, the culture, the land itself - and speaking purely as a rugby man, I realised quickly that anything I did in respect of defensive organisation would be an improvement on what was already there, simply because there was so little. As they'd never spent any time on defence, there was bound to be an automatic improvement. I think we've made a good deal of progress, but I'd also say I'm only 65 per cent through the job. There again, when I see someone like Betsen run into an American Football-style tackling machine weighing 100 kilograms, smashing it to the floor and [getting] back on his feet with the ball in his hand before it actually hits the deck, I wonder how much more improvement can be made. He's quite something, this Betsen."

Gloucester have no one in the Betsen class but then, neither do Stade Français. The Parisians are a richly textured team, but they are not Biarritz when it comes to winning important Heineken Cup games away from home. Ellis, who has a better take on French rugby than anyone in the English game, believes the Cherry and Whites will have their own "Munster moment" at Kingsholm tomorrow afternoon and make the knock-out stage for the third time in four attempts. And if they do, he will hold his head high when he flies to Paris in a few days' time.

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