David Ellis: Harlequins’ chief custodian on a new era for an English rugby institution

Harlequins chief executive David Ellis talks to SportsPro about the historic English rugby union club’s commercial outlook, their relationship with the RFU, their increased investment in women’s rugby, the lessons of the 2010 ‘Bloodgate’ scandal and how he finds balance in the squad.

David Ellis: Harlequins’ chief custodian on a new era for an English rugby institution

To many fans, the quartered shirt of Harlequins is the most recognisable club jersey in global rugby union. 

The west London team, who celebrated their 150th anniversary last year, are one of the five oldest in English rugby union and a sports property with a resonance far beyond the game’s traditional heartland. 

As familiar as that vivid kit may be, it is the legion of world class players that Harlequins have produced over the years which has really put them on the rugby map. Since William Leake made his debut against Wales in Newport in 1891, Quins have fostered elite English talents like former men’s national team captain Will Carling, 2003 Rugby World Cup winners Will Greenwood and Jason Leonard and head coach Sir Clive Woodward, 1991 Rugby World Cup finalist Brian Moore, and eight of England’s most recent Elite Player Squad (EPS).

In today’s sporting landscape, of course, history is nothing without a strong commercial backbone. While many traditional rugby union clubs - Richmond, Wakefield, Orrell, Waterloo and London Scottish, to name a few - have either folded or dropped down to minor leagues since the sport turned professional in 1995, Harlequins have often thrived in the modern era. 

Nevertheless, they have continued to pay deference to their rich past while bridging the gap between the amateur and professional era. The club effusively promote their community spirit and, as chief executive David Ellis puts it, everyone at Quins looks upon themselves as being “custodians of the club”.       

Scottish international winger Tim Visser scores a try

Ellis, a lifelong Harlequins fan, joined the club six years ago after a successful career in the property and social housing sectors. However, he believes his “passion” for the sport made a move into rugby administration the perfect fit. He has since made it his business to turn Harlequins into “a great and a very inspiring place to work” where “love, passion and commitment [for the club] are constant”.

Yet while an enjoyable working environment is an asset, any professional sports team have to foster a competitive instinct on the field, too. Harlequins head into a new Aviva Premiership season on the back of a sixth-placed finish in 2016/17 - good enough to qualify for this year’s European Rugby Champions Cup but not for England’s season-ending play-offs. Adding to the solitary Premiership title they won in 2012 is a long-term ambition.

Yet to stand any chance of success, a leading rugby union team must balance their playing squad between world class talent and an effective supporting cast. International stars disappear during two large blocks of the year - the three autumn international Tests and spring’s five-game Six Nations. That means quality replacements are a must but when the internationals return, a high-end squad becomes fit to burst, creating financial pressure. It is a season-long conundrum.

“Finding the right balance of the squad is imperative,” says Ellis. “We have recently seen quite a few of our players become England stars in a short period of time; our job is therefore trying to rebalance that. This is partly what John [Kingston, Harlequins’ director of rugby] has been doing with this summer’s recruitment.

“We are very proud of our international players but what we have to do is to be as competitive as we can be when they are not here. So our new signings - such as former Australia captain James Horwill - will be guys that will be here all year, as well as supplementing our really strong squad that has come through our system.

“Our relationship with England is really strong. Ian [Ritchie, the outgoing chief executive of England’s Rugby Football Union]   and Eddie [Jones, England’s men’s national team’s head coach] are constantly in conversation with us. There is no rub from this point of view.”  

Former England captain Chris Robshaw has made over 200 appearances for Harlequins since 2015 and remains a key player in the international side 

While Quins’ press department can call on recognisable England stars such as Chris Robshaw and Danny Care, as well as British and Irish Lions’ players Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler, Ellis considers the club’s “shirt and style of play” to be their most marketable assets. 

“It is interesting, when you look at the public awareness of rugby players compared to other sports stars: it is actually quite low,” notes Ellis. “We have an obvious and latent recognition from a lot of people that are not necessarily interested in rugby. 

“Sure the personas are important but so too is the character of rugby, as well as the sport’s values. These are so important when trying to attract young kids to playing the sport at grassroots level.”           

Ellis is inclined to set his sights carefully. He concedes that trying to compete with soccer is “unrealistic” and argues that in the Quins’ suburban west-London surroundings, “our main competitors are other leisure industries, not necessarily sport: it could be going to the theatre or a restaurant”.

The Stoop, which was named for former player and president Adrian Stoop, has been Harlequins’ home since 1963. It is situated just across the road from the home of English rugby union, Twickenham Stadium, whose modernised 82,000-seater stands dominate the TW1 skyline.  That said, the more traditional Stoop creates a unique atmosphere that almost personifies the area and the fans of the club.

“You are always hearing anecdotal comparisons between football and rugby,” continues Ellis. “The rugby experience is just different but it is an attractive one. At Harlequins there is no segregations of crowds and we have a strong family atmosphere.                   

“We are at 98 per cent capacity for the entire season, which has meant that we are now sitting here thinking about expanding the stadium.”

Retaining the distinctive look and character of the 14,800-capacity venue, while expanding and modernising its facilities, looks set to be Ellis’ biggest long-term challenge. 

“In the future, yes, we would like to [develop the stadium],” he explains. “At the moment, we are beginning to work out what that could look like. We now need to go and talk to lots of people. One of the things that we are all very strong on here is that we have been here for 54 years and it is important to remember that our purpose is not just about the rugby but about the community. 

“It is really important for me and the board that we take a lead in our community. That is the starting block for us.

The 14,800-capacity Stoop has been Harlequins’ home since 1963 

“Yes, we would like to expand certain things but then how can the stadium be used in different ways when we are not playing rugby? We have a wonderful heritage and the challenge as we go through professionalism is continuing to hold dear the values, habits and the rituals that have made this club who we are from the past. 

“We have a wonderful running track around The Stoop, for example. That sense of identity mustn’t ever be lost as we progress. We genuinely look at ourselves as being custodians of the club and how do we make sure it is better when hand it over to the next people. 

“We haven’t got anything firm but we are definitely beginning to look at it because there are more and more people wanting to come and enjoy match day here.”    

For a club whose heritage dates back to 1866, it would be remiss to think that it has been glory all the way. In 2009 and 2010, just before Ellis’ arrival, Harlequins were embroiled in one of the biggest scandals to hit the sport in the professional era.

The ‘Bloodgate’ affair, as it became known in the UK press, stemmed from a crucial Harlequins match against the Irish province Leinster in the Heineken Cup, then Europe’s elite club rugby union competition. With the Quins trailing 6-5, winger Tom Williams came off the field with an apparent cut to his mouth. Under the rules of rugby union, this necessitated a ‘blood replacement’ - a temporary substitution allowing for the wound to be addressed. Kicker Nick Evans came on in his place. 

It soon transpired that Williams had not been hurt at all, but had bitten a blood capsule to create the illusion of an injury. Team doctor Wendy Chapman later sliced the player’s lip with a scalpel in an attempt to avoid suspicion. The incident was engineered to provide an opportunity to get Evans, who had earlier been withdrawn with an injury, back on the field for tactical reasons. Harlequins had apparently attempted the trick on a handful of earlier occasions.

The discovery of the conspiracy tarnished the reputation of the great club, and of the sport in the UK. Several of those involved incurred lengthy bans, including Quins director of rugby Dean Richards, who joined chairman Charles Jillings in tendering his resignation.  

Quins 18-year-old fly-half Marcus Smith is the second youngest debutant featured in the Aviva Premiership

“I have said this many times: it is part of the club’s history,” says Ellis.  

"We did a mass review of the governance and the process to ensure ourselves that something like this could never happen again. I am comfortable that we have learnt those lessons and moved forward.

“It has made us stronger and since that point we have moved on commercially to have one of the most enviable family of partners in the league with great global and local sponsors such as DHL, Adidas, Greene King, TM Lewin. We have really shifted through the gears to bring those guys on as partners.” 

Bloodgate is the past, then, and Harlequins now stand as flag-bearers in the UK as an all-encompassing rugby union club, at the grassroots and with age representative teams, sevens, the men’s team and now a strong women’s team. 

The women will now compete in a newly formed domestic competition, Women's Super Rugby, a ten-team competition which is set to kick off this autumn. Participation requires clubs to have invested in training facilities and meet increased minimum coaching standards. Harlequins have, in addition, launched a women’s grassroots initiative called ‘Switch’, which Ellis hopes will find players to form the nucleus of future women’s teams.

“We are in our second year now of running a women’s side that is going to compete in the new women’s premiership,” says Ellis. “We had a good women’s team. Over the past year we have had 1,000 girls and women coming to play the sport: seeing the opportunities and the pathways that they can potentially follow.

“We sat down together as board and asked ourselves what is really important to us in the next years. For us, it was very important that there was parity with the girls and women’s teams in terms of trying to grow the game and get more of them engaged into the sport. 

“We have invested a great amount of time into this. Our intent is to fill The Stoop for women’s fixtures as well as the men’s. That is the energy, momentum, focus and drive that we are putting behind this.”