The Betfair Big Interview: Harry Ellis on the Lions and working with Warren Gatland

Proud Lion - Harry Ellis during the 2009 tour of South Africa
Proud Lion - Harry Ellis during the 2009 tour of South Africa
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The warm-up games are over, and the Test series for the British and Irish Lions starts in Auckland on Saturay. Betfair met former England scrum half Harry Ellis, who toured with the Lions in 2009, to talk about what we can expect...

"Gatland is very astute, he is very calm, and he’s a very good leader. I’ve read some of the flak he is getting over the people he has brought into the squad on this trip, but in terms of his knowledge, his game planning, and him as a bloke he’s outstanding."

Hi Harry. A final warm-up win against the Chiefs was good for morale, but are the Lions prepared properly for the Test series?

I thought it was good to see the midweek team raising their game because they have probably under performed a bit. Maybe they have fed off some of the promise the weekend guys were showing. You think they can go into the first Test now with a bit of confidence and momentum.

Warren Gatland masterminded a series win in Australia four years ago. How much tougher is this tour though?

New Zealand is such a hard place to go. I went there on my first England tour back in 2004 just a year after we'd won the World Cup and although I didn't get a cap it was amazing to experience the culture of the country as far as rugby is concerned. All these years later they are even more established as the leading nation in how they play. When you watched the Samoa game last weekend, the tries they scored, their off-loading ability, some of it is breath taking. It's also a beautiful country, by the way.

Sounds like you wish you were there?

I'd have loved to go. I had a few offers to go out there to do some work, but I'm a PE teacher at Leicester Grammar School these days and simply couldn't get the time off.

How tough is it to bring a group of players from different countries together? What was your trip to South Africa like in 2009?

It's unique, and quite strange when you first meet up with people you are more used to playing against. We would have sat in England meetings and analysed their weaknesses, and then you have to bond and be team mates. We actually did that quite quickly in South Africa, and it is great seeing that this year's group seem to be bonding too. It is a special and unique experience for any player. It was hard work for six of seven weeks, and sometimes I found it hard to switch off because of the pressure of the media attention. But it's interesting how in the professional era the players somehow manage to bring in that ethos from the old amateur days of everybody getting on and having a great time.

Tell us about Warren Gatland. He was forwards coach on your tour.

I really enjoyed working with him. He is very astute, he is very calm, and he's a very good leader. I've read some of the flak he is getting over the people he has brought into the squad on this trip, but in terms of his knowledge, his game planning, and him as a bloke he's outstanding. He's one of the best coaches out there, which is why he's got the job. Don't underestimate the importance of his back room staff though. Everybody on the tour has to pull their weight and join up into the culture of a Lions tour. He has a group of support staff that can do that.

You'd have played against his Wales sides.

Yes, and when he was coaching at Wasps too. Everywhere he has been he's produced top teams that know how to win and you always knew they would be tough opposition. His record speaks for itself. He has a way of playing, but more important he has a way of understanding his players. As a teacher now coaching rugby at my school I've taken a hell of a lot from coaches I worked with in my playing career, and he's definitely one of the best.

Conor Murray seems to have won the jersey at scrum half. How do you rate him?

He's a great player, he's played consistently well for a good two seasons now. His box kicking is spot on, his passing is really good, he's a really good organiser, and has got good vision. All three of the scrum halves offer something different, but in terms of the whole package he's the best nine out there. I know that Rhys Webb makes good line breaks and is exciting. But I might be biased about the importance of the position, but in my view it is one of the most vital and you need stability and a bit of composure making decisions, especially in wet weather, and then Murray is definitely the man.

How pivotal is the first Test. We don't want to stir bad memories but your 2009 side lost it?

There's a lot of psychology. If you win that first game it spreads confidence, although perversely it can also inspire the opponents to pull their finger out for the next one. It seems to me the confidence is building in the Lions squad and certainly the front row have looked good. Obviously getting Owen Farrell fit is pretty vital, but even then Johnny Sexton is massively experienced.

Is there a way for the Lions to win this series?

Yes - simply their defence has to be spot on. Defence wins games these days, they can all tackle, but they have that kind of maverick ability in them to create something from nothing. The Lions have to be at their absolute best and New Zealand have to be below par which is not something that happens a lot, but on any given day it can do.

Thanks for your time and we've a free £50 bet in aid of a favourite charity.

Oh great, the charity is an easy choice, it can go to the Matt Hampson foundation. The bet's more difficult. My heart would say to back the Lions to win the first Test at [5.0], but with money at stake my head is taking over and I'll back the All Blacks to win by more than 13 points which I'm hoping will pay around even money.

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