Back Home: Q&A with Randwick coach Gary Ella

Photo: SPA Images

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The Ella surname is synonymous with Australian rugby, and one which is held in the highest regard. Twins Mark and Glen, and younger brother Gary, all represented Randwick, NSW and the Wallabies with distinction in the early 80’s, and were responsible for a sea-change in the possibilities and execution of attacking rugby in this country.

Revered worldwide for their game-breaking talents and ability to effortlessly catch and pass at speed, whilst re-inventing the art of support play through the pioneering ‘flat attack’, they played a large part in the domination by Randwick of Sydney club rugby for over a decade.

All three brothers have since dabbled in the coaching realm. But it is Gary who has been the most consistent in terms of longevity and arguably, the most consistent achiever as well. As astute a thinker of the game now as he was on the field in his playing days, Gary returned ‘home’ to Coogee Oval at the start of this season with a mission to turn the Galloping Greens back into a title-winning side, and to wrest the dominance of the club scene back from arch-rivals Sydney University, who have had it pretty much their own way for the last five years.

Ella’s playing career spanned 134 1st Grade games for the Wicks, 25 appearances for the Waratahs, and six Wallaby caps. Since his retirement in the late 90’s he’s held a variety of coaching positions at different levels in the national and international game, including two spells as an assistant coach (backs) at NSW alongside Chris Hawkins in the initial Super 12 competition in 1996, and later under the great Bob Dwyer in the 2001 Super 14.

He took charge of the Australian U19’s for four years, culminating in a loss to France in the 2000 Junior World Cup Final, and also led Australia A through the 2002-03 season before heading offshore for a year’s experience as a foreign coach at Leinster in Ireland. He returned to the Sydney club rugby scene in 2004, taking up the challenge of restoring the reputation of a once great Parramatta, before the lure of his famous old stomping ground proved too hard to resist.

I was fortunate to get the chance to sit down with Gary recently to talk about his club rugby coaching history, some of the changes we’ve seen in the game since his playing days, and his thoughts on his future…

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Was it always your intention to go on and become a coach after your playing career ended?

“No. With playing it’s funny, you just get on the field and play. But I guess towards the end of my career and being a senior player, I was doing as much coaching on the field as I probably would have off of it, and I think because we had some success at that time, I began to think about coaching. Kevin Phibbs – who’s now the General Manager of the Randwick club – wanted me to assist him with second grade, which I did, and we went onto win the comp the following year. I then coached with Jeff Sayle and we won the first grade Premiership and I guess, without it ever actually being a plan, I got into coaching on a fairly continuous basis. In 2000, Bob Dwyer called and asked if I would like to coach on a full-time basis, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

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Enjoying the benefit of Bob Dwyer’s coaching experience with the Waratahs in 2003 – Photo: SPA Images

You played in the centres, and along with brothers Mark (flyhalf) and Glen (fullback) you were revered for the ‘Ella’ tradition of attacking with speed and flair. Now that you are on the other side of the white line, do you feel pressured to try and replicate that style as a coach?

“Not necessarily. I’m happy to win a game with a good score, but I’m just as happy to win a game 3-0. My philosophy is, you’ve got to win the battle in the midfield first, and if you win that then you can go wide. You’ve almost got to win the right to play attractive football, so you’ve got to do the hard work up the middle. I guess what I’m saying is that the forwards have to give you good possession before you can actually take on the opposition.”

But do the ideals of attacking play exhibited by you and your brothers influence the way that you coach your backline, or has the evolution of the game since then made that difficult to reproduce?

“No, it hasn’t. We still like to play touch footy, we still like to be creative, and we still like the players to have input into training and put in their two-bob’s worth, because I think that if you’re going to be successful as a team, you’ve got to have input from your players. You can’t just dictate to them, if they’ve got ideas you’ve got to listen to them and incorporate them into your game plan. I think that’s extremely important in that sense. We were always encouraged when we were playing under Bob Dwyer and Jeff Sayle to offer our own input, so it’s the way I played the game. I had some great coaches and I tend to take a little bit of their philosophies along with me.”

Has the era of professionalism suppressed some of that expansive and expressive style of footy? Teams are a lot more pragmatic and defence orientated these days.

“Yes, teams are a lot more professional these days and defences are very well organised. When I played we spent very little time on defence compared to today’s game. The opposition analyse the way you play and they analyse your moves, so you’ve got to keep changing. You can’t stay static and you can’t keep playing the same style of football. For example, at the start of the year we were playing expansive football, then we changed it a bit and started using the short-side more, and if you have a look at the games we played against Easts and Gordon, we kicked a little bit more than we have in the past. Who knows, against a Sydney Uni we might keep ball in hand. You play to the opposition and you study them. I’d love to throw the ball around week-in, week-out but number one – you’ve got to have the personnel to do it and number two – you’ve got to play the most effective way that you can to beat the team you’re up against on the day.”

Looking back, what made you decide to go to Parramatta – was it a chance to challenge yourself in a different way?

“It was probably a case of a few different things. Back in 2004 I actually coached for five games at Penrith. I’d just come back from Europe and they had just lost their two coaches. I was doing nothing so I just suggested if you need a hand give us a yell, and they did, so I went over and did the last five games for them. I felt that the West weren’t as strong as they could be, and I don’t think they were getting as much support as was required because there’s certainly a lot of talent out there. There’s always going to be a lot of talent in Western Sydney, it’s just that we’ve got to get some good coaches out there and we’ve got to get a few more experienced players playing in the area, and if we can do that then I think both of those teams can be very strong.

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Ella led the Two Blues up the ladder in his four years in charge – Photo: SPA Images

“The opportunity came up via Greg Mitchell, who was actually the operations manager for the Parramatta Eels back then. They were sponsoring the Two Blues at that stage and he contacted me and just said ‘Look. We need a coach, are you interested?’ I said yes, but if I’m going to do it I want to do it full-time, because we really have to invest a lot of hours in bringing those guys forward and I don’t think it’s a part-time job anymore. That was the opportunity that was presented to me.”

You certainly improved their win/loss ratio and got them a few places up the ladder. Do you feel like you did a good job at the Two Blues?

“Yes, I do. We got to mid-table a few times, and the only team that ever beat us convincingly or got to 50pts against us was Sydney Uni at Uni Oval, and we picked up a bonus point on that day because we scored four tries against them. That was the only time that we were ever beaten what I would call badly.”

Were you always going to leave Parra at the end of last year – did you have any idea of what was going to happen regarding the collapse of the Leagues Club?

“For me, I think that four years is probably enough for anyone at any one club. I was looking to move on anyway, and the fact is that when I made up my mind to leave, I was still under the impression that the Leagues Club was going to run for another two years. I was already talking to a lot of the officials at that stage about who was going to be brought in the following year to replace me.”

With the unfortunate problems they’ve experienced on and off the field, do you see a positive future for Parramatta?

“It’s always going to be difficult for them isn’t it, as they struggle to get people through the gates. They’re out there looking for strong sponsors, and when a club pulls out half a million dollars a year in sponsorship, it does leave you in a bit of a hole, and it’s not something that you’re going to replace immediately. It’s particularly tough with the economic environment that we have at the moment, but if they receive some assistance just to keep them afloat and get through this hard period, they’ll come back.

“They’ve had too many good players, and they’ve got too many strong supporters who will come in and help, for them not to succeed. If you actually look at it their junior numbers are still very good, they just need a little bit of help over this bump. It’s a really strong Sydney competition, and it’s not going to be as strong if we start losing clubs and particularly out West, because that area is simply exploding population-wise.”

What about the Super 15 franchise that Brett Papworth was trying to get started out there – were you behind that idea?

“Yes, I thought it would have been fantastic, and I certainly supported a Western Sydney bid. There’s so many untapped resources out there at the moment, basing a Super 15 rugby side out there would have been good for the game.”

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Watching on at Coogee Oval with assistant Omar Hassanein – Photo: SPA Images

You’re now back ‘home’ at Randwick where, in comparison to your time at Parramatta, you have access to a host of rep players and in some cases, Wallabies. As a coach, do you prefer the challenge of working with a team of aspirational talent that you can try to engage with your methods and improve upon, or the chance to work with a group of top level players that are able to grasp your ideas more readily and implement them accordingly out on the field?

“I think it presents two different sets of challenges. At Parramatta we did reasonably well with the talent that we had and it’s funny, my record against Randwick when I was coaching the Two Blues was excellent. I had more wins than losses and I’m pretty chuffed about that. At Parramatta I felt that I was really coaching and we worked pretty hard to improve things. Here, I still feel that I’m coaching but there’s a lot more management involved as well as purely management of the resources. Both roles have presented a different set of challenges and I’ve had great support in both positions. There’s maybe a little bit more experience here than we had at Parramatta, but that’s certainly not saying anything about the coaching potential at either club.”

There are obviously different levels of expectation involved as well. To lift Parramatta out of the bottom reaches of the ladder to a mid-table position was a relative success, whereas Randwick’s history of achievement means they expect trophies. Which one’s more difficult?

“There are different expectations. We had some great wins at Parramatta and they were well celebrated whereas here, they’re perhaps taken a little bit for granted. The expectations at this club are very high and you’re always on edge. There’s no such thing as a close loss, every defeat is a disaster, and every time you don’t play well it’s a disaster.”

Let’s touch on a couple of my favourite players here at Randwick. There are few more exhilarating sights in Australian rugby right now than seeing Ratu Nasiganiyavi with ball in hand, at pace, and with the line in sight. He’s got so much potential and he’s still only 21-years-old, but there’s undoubtedly a few rough edges that need smoothing out. Do you think you can get the best out of him and help push him to the levels that have been anticipated since he burst onto the Sydney club scene last year?

“Ratu’s got an awful lot of expectations surrounding him, and sometimes that weighs him down. He’s a guy that you’ve just got to encourage along, and you’ve got to look after him physically and manage his training load as well as you can. You’ve got to keep him on a mental high as often as you can as well. When he’s coming to the game feeling good and enjoying himself, he is unstoppable. But if he comes to the game and he’s down a little bit and he’s worried about what’s happening with his game, it tends to affect him . So we’re working really hard to keep him on a high and keep him confident.”

So there’s an important degree of man-management involved on your part?

“For sure. And that’s part of the role of a professional coach. We have 15 guys who present themselves differently each week and as coaching staff, we need to be aware of that. We talk to each other on a fairly regular basis, and we work as a team to get 15 players up and ready each week.”

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I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near the best of him yet.” Ella rates Sekope Kepu highly – Photo: SPA Images

I’m also a big fan of ‘Keps’, Sekope Kepu. He’s been in outstanding form of late and really seems to be back to his best, if not even better than he was pre-injury. Do you think he’s getting closer to that Wallaby recall?

“Well, I hope so. He struggled for a while physically because of the injuries that he’s had, and it took him some time to recover his fitness levels. But he’s certainly playing with a lot of confidence at the moment, and I’m sure that he’s only going to get a lot better than where he is currently at. He’s got bags of potential and I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near the best of him yet.”

Finally, what are you hoping to achieve here at Randwick. Are you going to be here for another year or two, or would you like the time to try to build another dynasty to rival the club’s domination in the late 70’s-early 80’s ,when they won 14 Premierships in 18 seasons?

“Mate, if you would have asked me who we’re playing in two weeks time I’d have trouble answering! I know that people hate it but I don’t even look at tables, I just look at who we’re playing the following week and start preparing the side. We look at DVD’s from our last game, not necessarily to watch what we did well but to focus on areas that we can improve on, and that’s vitally important to us. If we can get better each week, we’ll be harder to beat. As I said before, I thought four years was long enough at Parramatta, I don’t think I’ll be going much further than that here.”

Beyond that then, do you have aspirations to coach at a higher level again?

“If you’re having a look at professional coaches, you want to do well. You want to do well for your team and for your club, but you also want to do well for yourself. You’ve got to look at the opportunities. It’s a very pointy end coaching, and if good opportunities present themselves then you’ve got to take them, you can’t just let them go past and not grab hold of them. If I do well here, those opportunities may present themselves again, they may not, so we’ll just have to wait and see. If an opportunity came up to coach at a higher level or overseas somewhere, you’d be mad not to look at it.”

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Original version published by clubrugby.com.au on September 20th, 2009

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