After more than a decade focusing on the country’s elite young players, Dave Elliott is relishing a new role with the RFL, working with elite match officials.
The proud Cumbrian, whose promising playing career with Warrington was cut short at the age of 24 by a serious leg injury which had terrifying and almost fatal implications, can reflect on two series wins against the renowned Australian Schoolboys as the England Academy coach during his years with what would become the England Performance Unit.
But after a frustrating 2020 during which a proposed Academy tour of Australia and New Zealand fell victim to Covid-19, Elliott “decided to make myself feel uncomfortable” – as the RFL’s Match Officials Senior Coach.
“I’m about nine weeks into it now, five since it was made official, and I’ve loved every single minute of it,” he enthuses.
“I wasn’t exactly a stranger to the match officials at the RFL. But working with them much more closely, I’ve been blown away by their professionalism, and their high standards. They’re always pushing, always asking questions, they always want to be better, even the really experienced guys – it reminds me of the likes of James Roby, Sean O’Loughlin and Kevin Sinfield, and the way they never let their standards slip.
“I know people have their own views of match officials, and being honest they’re always going to get criticised. But believe me, their attitude is outstanding.”
Elliott is working in a reshaped Match Officials team at the RFL with Julian King, an experienced former referee, and the Head of Match Officials Steve Ganson.
“I think it’s a decent combination, because I’ve come to it fresh, with a background from coaching which is a bit different,” he added.
“I work with the full-time match officials through the week, running their training programme, doing their reviews, putting a schedule in place. To use a posh coaching word, we’re trying to make more holistic development – medical, coaching, psychology, nutrition.
“And then I also work with Julian and Steve liaising with clubs and their coaches, when they ask questions about decisions. We understand that coaches have got stresses of their own, with pressure from chief executives, boards, players and supporters.”
It’s another unlikely step in a journey in Rugby League which began on the game’s north-west frontier at Kells, and was progressing well with Warrington on the eve of the Super League era, until Elliott suffered a badly broken leg playing in a reserve team game at Oldham.
Without going into all the grisly details, the break led to the release of bone marrow which entered his lung – and Elliott was on life support in hospital for nine days.
It meant the end of his playing career but he worked his way back into the game as a coach, initially with Leigh, and then back at Warrington, initially on the development staff before Paul Cullen, a former team-mate who also alternated between centre and back-row, appointed him assistant.
He joined the RFL in 2010, initially as head coach of the Under-16s and Under-18s – the latter claiming a notable success against an Australian touring team including Jack Wighton, David Nofoaluma and David Klemmer – with future stars such as Sam Powell, George Burgess, Gareth O’Brien and Matty Russell in Elliott’s England team.
“The role evolved over the years,” he reflected. “When Steve McNamara was the England coach we worked really closely together, with an emphasis on the England Pathway. When Steve’s senior team beat the Kiwis in 2015, he introduced guys like George Williams, John Bateman, Joe Burgess and Ben Currie, who were all still pretty young having come through the Academy.
“I had more of an overseeing and management role for a while, then when Kevin Sinfield was moulding the EPU he asked me to take over as coach again – and we had another great win against the Aussies in 2018 with a new generation, lads like Harry Smith and Jack Welsby. They’re great memories.
“It was such a disappointment to lose the tour that was scheduled for 2020. We were hoping to rearrange for 2021 but it got cancelled again, and to be honest I was left twiddling my fingers a bit.”
Now he has a completely new challenge.
Dave Rotheram, the RFL’s Chief On-Field Officer, said: “Dave brings a wealth of coaching knowledge and experience to the Match Officials department. He has coached at all levels of the game and he has now moved into a pivotal role in developing high performance amongst our officials.”