Career

Former All Black Andy Ellis' surprising career turn

The father of two is tending to his growing passion.

By Amy Nelmes Bissett

When former All Black Andy Ellis was entered into the Ellerslie Flower Show in 2008, he readied himself for the onslaught of ribbing from his teammates. And unsurprisingly, it came in a steady flow, until they saw his skills and wanted his advice themselves, that is.

While Andy, 34, is the first to admit that his passion for the fierce competition on the field and the peacefulness of landscape gardening is perhaps unusual, he tells us they both give him equal joy.

"It's funny because the boys at the start were having a bit of a laugh and calling me 'flower boy' and stuff like that," laughs Andy. "But as soon as it comes to moving into a new house or buying a place when they need a design done, they'll tap me on the back and ask for something.

"People are surprised that I'm a rugby player who also likes to get my hands dirty in the garden. But really, the sense of achievement from winning a good game of rugby and from creating something in the backyard, or someone else's backyard, is actually quite similar."

For the most part, Andy is better known as the scrum-half who has played 28 tests for New Zealand, including the game to win the Rugby World Cup against France in 2011.

Grass roots: In action during the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park in 2011.
Grass roots: In action during the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park in 2011.

But before the All Blacks came calling in 2006, after playing for the Crusaders in the Super Rugby, he was at Lincoln University studying towards a degree in landscape architecture.

"That degree is still on hold," laughs Andy. "I'm about two and a half years through and I do hope that one day I will complete it because it was a natural calling for me.

"I have always been passionate about design and creating new spaces. And the one thing I always remember about my childhood is my parents and grandparents being passionate about their backyard. But when you get selected for the All Blacks, that becomes the focus. That was life-changing."

Sowing the seeds: Scarlett (left) and Arthur are keen to learn from their green-thumbed dad.
Sowing the seeds: Scarlett (left) and Arthur are keen to learn from their green-thumbed dad.

These days, Andy is living on Rokko Island in Japan with his wife Emma, 33, and children Scarlett, eight, and three-year-old Arthur. The family spends eight months of the year on the island off Kobe as Andy plays for Kobelco Steelers club and return to Christchurch for the off-season.

"It's like we have two different lives," explains Andy. "There are definitely a few wee challenges to splitting our year like that but we decided to embrace it. We wanted the kids to have an adventure together and we knew it wouldn't be for very long as I am 34, so I'm not going to be able to play for that much longer."

But it's this move which has fired his appreciation for the quintessential NZ garden. In fact, Andy decided to write a book with his close pal, fellow landscape architect Danny Kamo, celebrating our love of the outdoors.

Kiwi Backyard is partly about Andy's journey with landscape design, his friendship with Danny and tips on how to plan the perfect garden. But best of all, it peeks into the designs he's created for his high-profile mates, including All Black captain Kieran Read and Richie and Gemma McCaw.

All profits from the book will be donated to Eat My Lunch, a charity that ensures Kiwi kids don't go hungry in schools across the country.

"One of the big things about being in Japan is that you become very passionate about what we have at home," he tells. "It's very beautiful here with the temples and bonsai trees. But the thing that really inspired us was how lucky we are to have a backyard if we choose to.

Right: At home in Japan with wife Emma and the kids.
Right: At home in Japan with wife Emma and the kids.

"We have amazing native plants and wildlife. To be able to feel the grass on your bare feet is something that we might take for granted because grass doesn't grow everywhere."

Emma adds, "We're having an amazing adventure but we live in an apartment in Japan, so you can't just tell the kids to play outside. When we get home, we really love being in the backyard, starting up the barbecue and letting the kids run around."

The couple, who celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary last year, are currently building their own townhouse in Christchurch, with an enviable garden, entertainment space and fire pit. They are hoping for completion by the end of the year.

Andy says, "We are trying to be clever with the space. We're loving life in Japan, but home is where the heart is, so we want our home and of course the garden to be incredible!"

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