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'My body's never felt better': Former All Black Andy Ellis charts course for rugby's new frontier

By Tom Vinicombe
Kieran Read and Andy Ellis. (Original photo by Getty Images)

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When Andy Ellis called time on his New Zealand career at the end of 2015, the wider public probably thought it was the beginning of the end for the Crusaders halfback.

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Ellis, a World Cup winner with the All Blacks in 2011, was heading off to Japan where he would represent the Kobelco Steelers – and as far as most Kiwis are concerned, if you’re not playing rugby in New Zealand, you’re not playing rugby at all.

Japan, after all, is where New Zealanders ostensibly went to finish off their careers in their twilight years and pocket some easy change while playing in a comparatively less intensive competition.

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While that was perhaps a fair assessment 10 years ago, the situation has changed markedly. Ellis was just one of the many New Zealanders on the Kobelco Steelers’ books, alongside names such as Dan Carter, Brodie Retallick, Hayden Parker and Richard Buckman. Aaron Cruden and Ben Smith have also joined Kobe’s cause for 2021.

In 2020, almost half a decade following his departure from New Zealand, Ellis finally ended his tenure with the Steelers and seriously contemplated hanging up the boots altogether. Instead, the 36-year-old is forging on, and will tackle the newest frontier in world rugby.

On Thursday morning (NZT), Rugby United New York announced that Ellis has become the latest international player to join the Major League Rugby side’s roster for the 2021 season.

Ellis joins fellow New Zealander Kara Pryor and former England international Ben Foden on the RUNY roster, while France’s Mathieu Bastareaud also spent last season with the side.

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The 2020 Japanese Top League season was cut short after just six rounds of action due to COVID-19, with Ellis’ last match coming in the Steelers’ 57-0 thrashing of Toshiba way back in February. Speaking to RugbyPass, Ellis acknowledged that the almost year-long break from the game has helped get his body back into top condition and left him hungry for a new challenge.

“We’ve talked about these sabbaticals for the last 10 years really, guys having time off from the game, and I never really fully understood it myself,” Ellis said. “We play footy, why would we need time off?

“But after being forced to have it, I kind of get it now. I’m really excited, I want to put my boots back on and run around and compete. All these niggles I’ve been carrying, sore shoulders and elbows, they’re all gone. I’ve been able to train hard and lift proper weights and run fast again. It’s pretty cool, it’s a really nice feeling actually.

“I’ve had 12 months off, I’ve trained really hard, I’m in really good shape and my body’s never felt better. I haven’t been bashed around like I have been for the last 15 years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but I’ve got a good spring in my step.”

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That spring, of course, is as much due to the exciting new challenge that Ellis has ahead of him: getting to pull on the jersey of a team that represents one of the greatest sporting cities in the world – but one where rugby is still finding its feet.

“I know it’s a new sort of sport there but it is gaining some traction and there’s a huge opportunity there,” Ellis said. “It’s a country where they love entertainment and they love sport so I’m really hoping that I can go over there and help grow the game in some capacity.

“Both the city and the experience for the family will be great, but also it’s a real challenge for me to see if I can really help with the New York team and add some value. I’ve been fortunate to have been in some great teams and experienced some great things so hopefully I can take some of that and we can create something special in New York. That’s what’s driving me at the moment.”

During his 11 years as a professional rugby player in New Zealand, Ellis managed to win two Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, a handful of premierships with Canterbury, countless Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup series with New Zealand, and also the 2011 World Cup. In his final full year in Japan, Kobe also won the Top League title. It’s fair to say that the 36-year-old has been a part of some incredible playing groups and been coached by some of the best in the business – including the likes of Scott Robertson, Robbie Deans, and Wayne Smith.

Having played under Smith’s tutelage in Kobe, Ellis was also able to spend some time around Robertsons’ Crusaders outfit during the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa season, and regularly keeps in contact with both coaches.

“I had a really good run around with [the Crusaders] this year,” said Ellis. “I went down to a couple of trainings a week and just spent time in the environment. A couple of the halfbacks had a few little niggles too so I was just filling in a few gaps.

“I loved it, I was able to kind of learn a bit more off Razor as well, and refresh myself on what that Crusaders environment is like, and understand the culture again.

“I’ve been really fortunate, at Kobe we had Smithy. Smithy and Razor are up there as two of the best coaches in the world at the moment and I was able to bounce ideas off them over the last 12 to 24 months which has been pretty good so hopefully some of that stuff, I can take and try and implement it in New York as well.”

As far as professional sporting franchises go, Rugby United New York is still just a sapling of a team. Major League Rugby first kicked off in 2018, with RUNY not joining until the second year of competition. They managed a semi-final finish in their inaugural season, however, before last year’s competition was called off after just five rounds.

All in all, it means there’s plenty of foundation work still to be undertaken at the club, and an experienced operator like Ellis is exactly what the team needs to help establish a winning mindset.

“I really want to help implement or set up some really strong culture over there,” said Ellis. “I’ve been so fortunate to be involved with the best – guys that have done that kind of thing before, brought a team’s culture to life and instilled a real sense of pride. All that sort of stuff, I’m excited about going over and helping to set up.

“They’ve already got some really great things set up over there too, so there’s a really cool story to be told there and I’m just hoping I can add something to it. And, undoubtedly, the other reason I’m going over is to win. That’s just kind of how I work, I’ve always been a competitor so I’ll be doing everything I can to help New York win.”

Despite ongoing issues with the coronavirus pandemic in America, Ellis is optimistic that things will take a turn for the better in the coming months and while it may not be the ideal time to travel the USA, it’s an ideal opportunity for Ellis and his family.

“Opportunities like this can pass you by and if we didn’t jump in now, who knows what might happen. I know the world’s a bit of a funny place but we’re confident enough with how things are going to make the move. It’s exciting, we’re excited – it’s New York.

“We’ve been really fortunate; this game has been so good to me. We loved our time in Kobe – what an awesome place, what awesome people, what an awesome club – and now, for us to be able to go and have another adventure and experience some amazing things all over again and meet some new people – how cool is that?”

The Major League Rugby season is set to kick off on March 20 with RUNY scheduled to play Atlanta in the opening round. Ellis and his family will be setting off for America in the coming weeks, ensuring that the former All Black has plenty of time to get to know his new teammates before taking the field come the season’s kick-off.

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'My body's never felt better': Former All Black Andy Ellis charts course for rugby's new frontier

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