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March 07, 2022 15 min read

Rugby Wisdom Podcast

Andy Ellis


Andy Ellis:I’m a massive fan of theming. The successful teams I’ve been on have almost always had a theme aligned to them.

Craig Wilson:Hello, and welcome back to the Rugby Wisdom Podcast. You just heard there from Andy Ellis, this week’s guest. He needs no introduction, but I’ll give it a go. 28 All Blacks caps, winning the Rugby World Cup. 150 Crusaders appearances. Also winning two Super Rugby championships. And most recently working with Wayne Smith and the Kobe Steelers.

Before we jump into the show, this is a great time to remind you that has all the official merchandise of the Six Nations team. They also have the largest selection of official All Blacks gear in the United States, so make sure you visit and wear your team’s colors with pride.

Andy, welcome to the podcast.

Andy Ellis: Yeah, cheers mate. Good to have… Thanks for having me on.

Craig Wilson: No, thank you so much. So, where in the world are you right now?

Andy Ellis: I’m in Christchurch, New Zealand at the moment, so we finished up the Japanese rugby season sort of February, March, I suppose, when COVID really started to play its role, and yeah, I’ve been back in New Zealand ever since.

Craig Wilson: Well, that’s not a bad place to be. Obviously, you guys are looking after the COVID situation pretty well and it’s awesome to see the test match between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. What an epic game. At the time of recording this, it was test one, sixteen all. Do you have any quick thoughts on that?

Andy Ellis: I think first of all, wasn’t it just awesome to see test match footie again? There was so much excitement in New Zealand, and I’m sure there was probably all over the world to have a big game, and the first of the four Bledisloes, as well, which was pretty exciting. Yeah, I mean I thought Australia were particularly good. It’s sort of the start of a new era for them, isn’t it, with Dave Rennie and what he’s implementing there. Pretty world-class coach. And I think you can see a lot of the little detail that he brought into their game really help them. And then on the other side, probably the All Blacks were maybe just a little bit rusty. You know, just a few combinations, and just getting maybe some of the context, as well. You see they probably hadn’t played rugby in a few weeks, so I think the next test coming up at Eden Park, I think the All Blacks might be a lot sharper.

Craig Wilson: Yeah. Well, it’s the common theme, the wounded animal as it will, and now look, I’m very, very biased here with quite a loaded question from the Northern Hemisphere, but should they have went for a drop goal for the win? Hindsight’s wonderful, but what’s your thoughts around that?

Andy Ellis: Yeah. They probably should have. Yeah. It’s not really something we do a lot here, though. We don’t set up for it a lot. The weather is generally really good. We play most of our footie is through our summer and kind of into early winter, I suppose, but we get most of our weather is nice, so we don’t practice a lot of that. We score a lot of tries and kick a lot of… So, yeah, it’s probably something, probably need to look at more so, because going forward and when you talk about things like World Cups and stuff, that does come into it and it does play a big part.

Craig Wilson: Yeah. I mean, sitting here, obviously being living in the U.S., but from the North, I’m like, “Drop kick! Drop kick!” But I might have been saying that in the third minute as opposed to the 89th minute, so I’m very biased there. But look, I’m really pleased to have you on, because I know culture is such a huge thing for you, and you’ve been involved in some wonderful cultures, but I would love to just dig a little bit deeper around this theme, and actually understand what does culture mean to you and why is it important for coaches or teams to really focus on that area?

Andy Ellis: Yeah. It’s a big question. You know, I’ve been really fortunate to be on some great teams with some great coaches. I’ve had Wayne Smith, and Robbie Deans, and Razor, and Rob Penney also. Also from other countries, Allister Coetzee, Gary Gold, the American current coach, and all the attributes with them that really stand out is I always think of them as great teachers, and they all have the ability to create a culture or an environment that people really want to be a part of, and when you… I kind of feel when you do that, that yeah, it’s a really good way to get the best out of people, because the guys and the girls if that’s the environment, that they really care.

So, I think that’s one of those things I love about the teams I’ve been in, is the culture, and the real feeling of sort of belongingness with some of those groups.

Craig Wilson: Yeah, that’s a really cool thing to… So, culture’s like… It’s such… I don’t want to make it feel like a buzzword or anything like that now, but it’s like it is at the kind of forefront of people’s mind. How do you go about cultivating it? What does it kind of feel like? What of the experience you’ve had, where you’re like, “Wow, I actually… I’m belonging here.”

Andy Ellis: Yeah. It comes down to a lot of behaviors, I think, or rituals, and it needs to be lead from the top. That’s the other thing. It needs to come lead from the top. The head coach often, and then it sort of feeds through the group, so when I say behaviors, it’s things like greetings. You might have little things like a team handshake, where you all look each other in the eye and you create a sense of trust. And when someone enters the room, you acknowledge that they’re there by shaking hands and looking someone in the eye. It can just be little things like that. It creates that real kind of equality, I suppose.

So, there’s that sort of, but there’s also a lot of other behaviors or rituals. A lot of imagery or symbolism when you come into your clubhouse or whatever it is. I think of the Crusaders, for example, you know there’s a big honors board that you see early on, and you see all the names of everyone that’s ever played for the club. There’s banners hanging in the gym of the titles that have been won. All those things like that, symbolism, connecting to a lot of the values or the standards that are at the club, and they’re up and about, and they’re seen every day, so you quickly understand sort of what they stand for.

I think things like sound is another one that is really important, so creating ritual around that. We never used to listen to music on the way to the grounds. It was always a bit of a no-go zone. You’d just be quiet and not say anything. But kind of evolved into having awesome, big ups music playing on the bus to the ground. When you’re in the championship, playing some big songs that… and you’d often go to the same songs each week, so it created that… Really got the boys up and got them into a really good routine, made them feel sort of good. Some guys would even be sort of bobbing or dancing, because they were so relaxed and they felt so part of what we were doing that it was really cool. You know, you think about like an old song you might have heard from the past, when you’re at high school or something, and you… It reminds you of a great party you’re at with your mates in a really heavy time, and it provokes or evokes those sort of emotions again. I think it’s pretty cool.

So, noise and sound I think is a really big part of that sort of culture, as well. And yeah, there are a lot of other things. There’s things like food, and smell, and all these things that help kind of grow the sense of belonging and sort of safeness within a group. And then when you get that, that’s when you can really get the best out of people.

Craig Wilson: No, I love that.

Andy Ellis: Sorry, I’m not gonna ramble on too long.

Craig Wilson: No, no, that was brilliant, and there was one thing what you mentioned there around sound, and that’s not necessarily something I’ve massively thought of. Normally post-match, you put your team’s song, you sing if you’ve had a win, or you’re in the clubhouse and you’re having a good time, but also what you tend to see these days is people go in their own zone, with their own headphones, and was that… Are people allowed to kind of do their own things? Is it encouraged to be part of a group? How is it managed when potentially the culture is… I don’t want to see being tested, but if the people aren’t necessarily going along with the flow, if you catch my drift.

Andy Ellis: Yeah, yeah. I do. I mean, often a third of the guys will have their own headphones on anyway, because that’s part of their routine, but you know, it’s just arriving to the grounds, playing some music, and sort of everyone looked at you going, “What’s going on here?” And you sort of… You look relaxed, and calm, and like you’re having fun, but you’re also really focused. You know, so I think… Yeah, that’s probably part of it. You do have to respect everyone’s way of going about it. And it does sometimes take time, as well, but you do get there.

You talk about sound, too, I think even the way messages are delivered, and by different people at different times. Actually, sound can mean big pauses between a really strong message. You know, where it makes people stop and think, and it has real power to it, and so there’s all sorts of different ways to do it and create that, but yeah, there’s a few examples.

Craig Wilson: No, nice. And again, it reminds me actually the sound of… I mean, you were saying when people are coming into the environment and they feel relaxed in the flow, there’s an awesome video of actually Maradona, the footballer, the soccer player, in a pre-match warmup. I’m not sure if you’ve seen this video where it’s the stadium music, and he’s literally just doing his warmup, laces undone, just doing keepie ups, but you can tell he’s in the absolute flow and he’s kind of just dancing and enjoying himself, and it’s really interesting, that.

I actually heard a podcast, I think it was with Matt Toomua, the Wallabies player, about his wife I believe is a cricketer for the national team, and their warmup consisted of a lot of kind of dancing, and enjoying themselves, and it kind of instantly struck a chord where I was like, “Oh, if you see that in a rugby or macho world, it’s like oh, he doesn’t care, or he’s not interested.” And I just find that a really interesting point that you made there, that actually everyone has their own type of flow, and why not be relaxed pregame? I’m sure that’s an optimal state, right?

Andy Ellis: I understand it, because it actually took me a long time. You know, the first half of my career, I think the first two thirds of my career, it was you arrive, you’re at the ground, it’s very serious. You’re very focused. You’ve got a job to do. But I think that’s very much an old way of approaching it. The way it is now is it’s about trying to make people feel really calm. The work’s been done through the week. If you’ve coached well, if you’ve got it right, the work’s been done through the week. Now it’s about getting your team or your group, whatever it is, into the right frame of mind. And for me, I think a calm, relaxed, but still on edge feel in the group, and most importantly a feeling of a deep, unwavering belief, and that sense of real belonging.

And like you said, the cricket girls, they’re dancing and feeling part of it, and yeah, I get it. I know because I’ve… That’s how we roll now.

Craig Wilson: No, that’s good. I like being in this modern world. Now, who instigates or starts off the kind of culture, and then who runs with it? Does it change? Is it always evolving? Like who are the key stakeholders in all of this?

Andy Ellis: It does always come from the top and there are certain things that I think the top can implement early on. Things like a first thing on a Monday morning, whether you won or lost, you come together and you might have a fun group or entertainment committee. Might be four or five of the team and they come up with a little skit, or a fun game, or they come up, find a video that they found on YouTube, something real fun that the first thing, sit down, and everybody has a bit of a laugh and kind of makes things feel okay. So, there’s little things like that, and so that’s often implemented.

But then I think it’s about having a really strong leadership group, so that’s your sort of five or six, seven I suppose, kind of key, usually more senior guys, but doesn’t always have to be. Guys that are gonna really help drive a lot of the values or standards that are at the club, and then they go about and make implementing that, tapping guys on the shoulders and saying, “Hey, could you help us come up with a team song? Hey, what do you think about us having a few beers on the weekend off and we organize and invite all the partners along?” Or you know, whatever it is, it sort of starts to become driven within the group itself, within the team itself, but I do believe it does have to start and be brought in from the top, so that then you can always go back to the head coach too if need be, if there’s any issues, because they’re all on board.

So yeah, I think eventually it does get driven through the team, things like the music, and you find things you never thought would happen will end up happening, just because the group themselves are driving those things.

Craig Wilson: Nice, and how does this filter out of your rugby life into your business life or your family life now? Like what kind of positives have you taken from this?

Andy Ellis: Yeah. We try to have a certain amount of routine and little behaviors and rituals in our family, too, which is cool. We’ll have a roast meal on a Sunday and the kids will know that that’s our team that we’ll all sit together and spend time together and talk about the week, and little things like that I reckon are pretty cool. In terms of business life, yeah, I’m pretty young in all of that. I’m sort of just learning. I’m sort of tiptoeing in a little bit. I’d love to do some culture stuff in time with a couple of little businesses I’m involved in, but yeah, we got a great group of people in them, and yeah, where I can add value hopefully I can in the future.

Craig Wilson: No, brilliant, and there’s one thing I came across recently. It was from, I’m sure we’ve all seen it on Netflix, Phil Jackson in the Last Dance, and the Last Dance was actually a theme for the season, and as you’ll know, the Crusaders and Razor Robertson, Scott Robertson used Rumble In The Jungle, for example, when Ali was coming out of retirement to face George Foreman. Now, what does theming mean to you? And obviously I know they’re quite sacred to teams, but is there any real moments or themes you’ve enjoyed which would be worth sharing?

Andy Ellis: I’m a massive fan of theming. The successful teams I’ve been on have almost always had a theme aligned to them. Yeah, and so it’s I think you’ve gotta understand sort of where you’ve been, so your club or your organization, kind of what’s gone before, sort of what the place stands for a little bit, what are those standards are what are the values, you know? Sometimes there’s a bit of homework to be done to figure out what that is, and then you can really grow a pretty unique theme out of that.

So, I look at the Crusaders, we hadn’t won for… I can’t remember what it was. Might have been seven or nine, maybe nine years. We hadn’t won for nine years, and we tried, and we’d been close for a long time, and you went back and the story of Rumble In The Jungle, Muhammad Ali, he hadn’t fought for nine years, he was world champ, and then hadn’t fought for nine years, and then came back to obviously fight in that Rumble In The Jungle, and was able to win it after all that time. And I think that’s quite a close connection with what the Crusaders had been through, and every week was a different fight that Muhammad Ali had gone through, all about his sort of types of training. Some fights are gloves off and scrapping in an alleyway, you know, depending on what team you’re playing.

And so, really cool imagery around it all week, holds a lot of power, and the boys sort of get relief and buy-in. You know, I talked about imagery and culture early on. We had big posters of Muhammad Ali up and some quotes of some of the cool stuff he’d said, and what he believed, and it all tied into a lot of values that the Crusaders had.

I think another example was probably the club that I’ve been at in Japan. We’re really fortunate Wayne Smith came along and we hadn’t won a title for… might have been 15 years. And we’re a strong, proud club in Japan. Kobe Steelers. And so, Smitty came and he went through the same process, looked at what the city stood for, what the club stood for. We’re a hundred-year-old club, we’d had massive runs of success. Our club is actually a steel manufacturing company, so we termed ourselves the steel workers, and our company helped rebuild the city of Kobe when they had a massive earthquakes in the early ‘90s-

Craig Wilson: Oh, wow.

Andy Ellis: We kind of themed it up and tied it all together and go right, we are rebuilding the club. We’re gonna get the big furnace cranked up so we’ve got hot iron and we’re gonna pull any team into it and see if they can handle the heat, see if they can stay with us. And so, all of that language was based around defense was a steel wall, a defender of the week got a big steel shield, the attacker got a torpedo. You know, like it was everything was so closely connected. Our language, what we talked about, we’d show videos through the week of big furnaces and us putting in big hits, and steel workers working hard in the steel factory, and we really got this massive kind of buy-in and belief, and yeah, and we’ve gone two-and-a-half seasons straight now without a loss-

Craig Wilson: Wow.

Andy Ellis: So, pretty powerful. There’s a lot of belief and it’s real strong, but it all just came about from kind of understanding where we’d been, what we stood for, and then we could really drive it hard every day, and it’s easier said than done. You know, you’re sometimes not really sure. Young fella comes into the environment, or an old fella, and you just think it’s another club. When you start understanding what it stands for and you know how much people care that have gone before, that’s when you can just get so much more out of your team.

Craig Wilson: No, that’s really powerful. It almost wants you to… You just describing it there almost made me feel part of it, you know? Because you were talking with such passion behind it. That’s really cool. And also, that’s something what can literally be done at any level, right? So, I’m thinking here at Yale University, the history that we have, I’m thinking of your Tuesday-Thursday coaches and clubs what have been around for hundreds of years, people might be struggling to come out for training or whatever, but if you start building a bit of a theme around the season, it could bring people out of the woodwork, so I think that’s such a powerful thing you shared there.

Yeah, thanks for sharing that.

Andy Ellis: No, no, it’s good, mate. I think it’s important. Hey, you get that kind of real deep care and belief into something that’s bigger than yourself and bigger than the game, then you can go to places that no one’s ever been, and that’s kind of… That’s what it’s all about, eh?

Craig Wilson: Nice. Well, I think that’s a wonderful point to end on, Andy. I know you’re a busy man, so I just want to say a big thank you for just sharing your rugby wisdom with me, taking the time out, and yeah, wish you all the best, and hopefully we get to see you out on the field sometime soon.

Andy Ellis: Good man. My pleasure, Craig. Thanks for chatting, mate.

Craig Wilson: Thanks, Andy.

Craig Wilson: What a great pod by Andy Ellis, and I’m sure you agree, what a wonderful guy. Really down to Earth, really humble, and it was brilliant for him to share stories of what he’s felt in some classic, classic rugby environments. I mean, the All Blacks, the Crusaders, the Kobe Steelers, and I’m sure you picked something up. Thanks for tuning into our Rugby Wisdom Podcast. For all the other podcasts and also all my analysis work, you can visit and you’ll be able to keep up to date with everything what’s going on. Thanks for listening and tune in next week.


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