Getting to Know Rugby United New York's Rugby World Cup Winner
Andy Ellis has just finished a run when he joins our Zoom call. Behind him the sun is shining brightly as the 36-year-old steps into his New Zealand home to discuss the latest move in his storied professional rugby career.
In 2005, Andy made his debut for his home region of Canterbury, after a second season with his province the scrum-half was signed up to Super Rugby team, The Crusaders. In his first three years playing at Christchurch Stadium, Andy contributed to bringing two titles to his home city.
Missing out on the 2006 Super Rugby Final because of injury, he was unable to join up with the All Blacks squad until their tour to the northern hemisphere until late 2006. Eventually making his debut against England at Twickenham, Andy would go on to make 27 more appearances for his country.
Playing in two games at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, it was in 2011 that Andy would help make his country win a second world title. That year, the tournament was held in his home country and despite not having the mercurial Dan Carter, New Zealand overcame France 8-7 at Eden Park in Auckland.
Coming off the bench and playing 30 minutes in the final, replacing Piri Weepu, now nearly 10 years on from that victory, Andy will be the second All Black from that World Cup winning side to have signed up to play in Major League Rugby.
In 2020, center Ma'a Nonu represented San Diego Legion as they won every game of the shortened season, scoring three tries across the four games that he started. Announced as one of Rugby United New York's recruits for 2021, Andy says it was fate that the team's Head Coach, Greg McWilliams, got in touch after he had finished his sixth year representing Kobelco Steelers in the Japanese Top League.
"I finished in Japan when Covid hit in February, March time last year, that's when the season ended and that was my last year in Japan," Andy told MLR. "I had done six years, so the family were ready to come home.
"I said to my wife that I was still feeling pretty good, injury free and still really enjoying being part of a team and adding value where I could. I was pretty keen to hang the boots up, but if something in London or New York came up, then what an awesome experience that would be for our family, even just for a short time.
"Literally two weeks after that, I got a message from Greg and we just started chatting and here I am. We are so excited about it. It is an exciting new competition, there is massive potential and opportunity in the States, so it is great that I can go and be a part of that."
Andy will be one of the most experienced faces in the New York locker room and will be able to offer plenty of advice to the younger players around him. All of the team's other options in the nine jersey are aged 21, with Connor Buckley signed as a free agent after going undrafted in the 2020 MLR Collegiate Draft and former USA age-grade international Conor McManus, who recently represented Canterbury in the Mitre 10 competition.
Each of the young Americans will be able to watch, learn and bend the ear of a player who has performed at the peak of rugby. Most recently having played domestically in Japan, Andy feels as though there are plenty of similarities between MLR and the Top League.
Established in 2003, the Top League is still very much a new professional competition. Like MLR, the league was created with a view of creating a better class of player and to make the national teams of both the USA and Canada more competitive at Test level.
For Japan, the benefits of professional domestic rugby can be seen at the past two Rugby World Cups. In 2015 Japan shocked the world by beating two-time winners of the Webb Ellis Cup, South Africa, in Brighton, England. Four years later, whilst hosting the tournament, Japan went all the way to the quarter-final stages.
Over the years numerous All Blacks, Springbok and Wallaby internationals have made their way to Japan in order to play in the competition. At Kobelco, Andy played with his former All Blacks teammate Dan Carter, as well as 11 Japan internationals
"I found in Japan, the foreign influence of both coaching and players made a huge difference over there, both at college level, university level and at the professional level in Japan," Andy said.
"When you start getting coaches like a Wayne Smith, Jake White, Steve Hansen and Robbie Deans, these are guys that genuinely know what it takes and have got a real eye for talent and playing a great brand of rugby and bringing teams together. That is a crucial part of it.
"What I have seen in the States is some pretty good coaching going on there, with some high-level coaches who really know what they are talking about. I think that is a big part in the development of the game and then that continues down to the colleges and then at high school level and it breeds a whole new generation of rugby players that love the game."
At the age of 36, Andy is under no impression that his playing days are numbered. Laying for New York is as much about the rugby as it is gaining another life experience before packing his rugby boots up for good.
Moving to New York with his wife, Emma, and their two children, Andy is also looking forward to helping grow professional rugby in the USA and give back to the sport that has been his profession for nearly 16 years.
"There are a couple things I am looking forward to really," Andy said. "One is absolutely getting to go and live in New York with my family and experience that with my kids. Everyone that I talk to says that it has got this incredible energy, an amazing place and what an opportunity to live there.
"But, just as big a part of it is to see if I can add some value to what is going on in America with the rugby. I have been so fortunate to be part of so many good teams and have so many great coaches. I have got some good experience, so hopefully I can come and give a little back.
"Rugby has been so great to me and I sort of feel in some ways, towards the end of my career, that this is a really nice way of trying to give back and try and grow the game in a country that loves sport and entertainment, and to be a part of that journey.
"I know they are looking pretty seriously at having a World Cup there in the next 10 or 20 years, so we can grow MLR into a really strong competition that guys all over the world want to come and play in and the people getting behind it.
"Wouldn't it be great to say that you were part of that journey? That really excites me."
Rugby United New York and Andy Ellis will start the 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada, where they will play San Diego Legion. The Legion have relocated to Nevada as a result of Covid-19, the game taking place at 7pm (ET) as part of the hotly anticipated opening weekend of the fourth season of Major League Rugby.
You can learn more about Rugby United New York by visiting their official website or by following them on Twitter and Instagram.
Written by Joe Harvey
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