Genge chats Eddie Jones, Steve Borthwick, growing the game, Saudi money and the environment
Ellis Genge will captain England for the first time against France, here’s our exclusive interview with the Bristol prop from the March 2023 issue of Rugby World.
If all players could flit as easily between Jay-Z and Just Stop Oil in conversation as Ellis Genge then the sport’s marketing would take care of itself.
The England star has always been somewhat of an enigma within the game, having grown from a trouble-making teenager on a Knowle West council estate in Bristol to become the world’s best loosehead prop and one of its most entertaining characters in little more than a decade.
It is no ordinary rugby journey but Genge is no ordinary rugby player. The Baby Rhino and ‘rugby’s bad boy’ are both monikers you may have seen attributed to him. Now try 2022 Premiership champion, 2022 World Rugby Dream Team member and senior, 43-cap England vice-captain for size.
Last year, Genge joined the Roc Nation roster – that’s where label boss and rapper Jay-Z comes into things. And while he found a new home off the pitch, he returned home on it. The lure of his loved ones brought the former Leicester skipper back to Bristol, where he provides engaging company.
“Emotionally I’ve got a lot more energy because I’m not distressed about other stuff off the pitch,” explains Genge. “I can come and see my family and I can’t put a price tag on that.
“For what I gave up at Leicester, winning the league, being captain and really enjoying myself, I’ve now gained a whole lot off the pitch and family-wise.
Read more: England Six Nations squad to play France
“I’m quite close with (England men’s record cap holder and former Leicester team-mate) Ben Youngs, who bleeds green, red and white, and he even said to me, ‘Mate, you seem a lot happier.’ I don’t think any of the boys hold anything against me for the decision that I have made. I’m at peace.”
Plus, it’s not just the Roc Nation family that has been expanding. Genge and his partner Megan recently welcomed a daughter to join two-year-old son Ragh.
He is close friends with international colleagues and Exeter duo Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade, both of whom have kids of a similar age. Nights out and lengthy gaming sessions have been replaced by soft play areas and plenty of daytime, family-friendly fun.
“We were very close beforehand but having the kids now means we spend a little bit more quiet time together,” says Genge. “Now it’s very much, ‘What can we do with the kids?’ It definitely makes us tighter and it’s nice we’ve all come through the environment together.”
Genge on Eddie Jones: “I’ll forever be grateful to him”
Of course, the England environment that bred them no longer exists. Eddie Jones, the coach who first called up a 21-year-old Genge in 2016 after he had made just one start for Leicester, was sacked by the RFU in December. A review into a dismal Autumn Nations Series decreed it was time to move on.
Not even a remarkable 25-25 draw with the All Blacks could spare the Australian’s job after suffering a first home defeat to Argentina in 16 years before his side were booed off at Twickenham following the 27-13 loss to reigning world champions South Africa.
“If we’d have won every game we wouldn’t have been in the same situation but everyone has to move on,” reflects Genge, who could now face Jones in a World Cup quarter-final after his appointment as Australia coach, following Dave Rennie’s shock sacking.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for the bloke and I’ll definitely be in contact with him – well, if he wants to! – over the coming years. He’s done loads for me, so I’ll forever be grateful to him.
“It’s definitely not bad blood between the playing group and Eddie. He’s a competitor, he wants to win and that’s all he ever wanted to do for England and I think we were all very much still on board with him (before he left).”
Did Jones have any parting words of wisdom for his vice-captain? “He said ‘Mate, (been a) pleasure. Get hungrier!’ It was slightly emotional. He’s the only head coach I’ve ever known in that England set-up, he gave me my debut. Our relationship was growing nicely.”
Genge on England coach Steve Borthwick: “He’s not the most socially in tune”
Luckily for Genge, Jones’s replacement, Steve Borthwick, is a man he knows intimately from his time at Welford Road. The two dovetailed perfectly at Tigers, so you can expect more of the same on the international stage. “Steve’ll tell you himself, he’s not the most socially in tune person in terms of having a feel for how people are emotionally,” recounts Genge.
“I think he struggled understanding that some people would come in high emotionally some days and down other days. That’s where I tried to take control.
“He’s amazing detail-wise, a brilliant bloke as well, a real family man. I really just rate him as a human. We bounced off each other well and more importantly we had a great group of blokes and staff around us to drive that environment.”
Genge on England defence coach Kevin Sinfield: “He has a radiant glow of humility”
One of those staff, rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield, has joined Borthwick at HQ to take charge of England’s defence. His awe-inspiring fundraising feats for motor neurone disease, after his league team-mate and great friend Rob Burrow’s 2019 diagnosis, are enough to make even the stiffest upper lip tremble. Unsurprisingly, emotionally-tuned Genge is a big fan.
“Literally every day it comes across how inspiring he is. Every time you speak to him, he has a radiant glow of humility. I haven’t got words for him, he’s such a hero and someone you can lean on if you need advice or help.”
Borthwick and Sinfield will look to replicate their success at Leicester Tigers with England. Harlequins’ Nick Evans is on board as attack coach for the Six Nations after Martin Gleeson’s departure and together they will bid for a first Grand Slam in seven years.
“I’ve been involved in two Six Nations wins but never in a Grand Slam, they won it the year before I made my debut,” Genge says. “We’ve got
a reasonably young squad and I’d probably get more out of seeing how excited those boys would be (to win). I think that has come from fatherhood, I’ve got more of a nurture role now.”
Things are progressing internationally but the club game is in turmoil after the Premiership watched both Wasps and Worcester go to the wall. A relaunch for 2024-25 is on the cards with one of the architects of cricket’s The Hundred, Rob Calder, brought in as chief growth officer, but it’s a role Genge strongly believes cannot lie solely on one person’s shoulders.
He says: “The onus falls on everyone to grow the game. It is everyone’s job if you want to but again it’s a choice. I wouldn’t ever do media if I didn’t think I would impact anyone from doing so.”
But growth is no easy task when participation levels have dropped, the game is in the midst of financial upheaval and ex-players are suing governing bodies on the basis that playing the sport has left them suffering with permanent brain injuries.
“Firstly, we have to look at how we make the sport appeal more to the masses and your everyday person,” adds Genge, who speaks of the shock his barber displayed after cottoning on to the fact that rugby was his day job.
Do you do that by prioritising the individual, highlighting the personalities that exist within the game that can help shout about it from the rooftops?
“At the moment, rugby is the product instead of the player. The clubs are having a significantly bigger impact than we are. In the academy you are taught to be humble and not to be eccentric.
“It is changing slightly, we’ve seen a big swing but ultimately the foundations of the sport are stuck in their ways. Until we change a few people at the top and the demographic at the bottom, I don’t see how we can possibly get that.”
Genge loved Dennis Rodman’s story in Netflix’s The Last Dance documentary about Michael Jordan’s famous Chicago Bulls side but fears, partly from personal experience, that rugby is still reluctant to uncover its more diverse stars.
“I know there are people in rugby who have that sort of party personality, dye their hair and are a bit crazy,” reveals Genge. “We probably don’t hear enough about them but do we really want to hear about them? I think people frown upon it in our sport. I faced that in my early years but I don’t really care now and I’ve probably cleansed myself.”
Genge knows there is no silver bullet. “I don’t think me or some of the boys chucking up a few social posts is going to save Wasps or Worcester,” he says, tongue in cheek, when asked if players can do more to spread the gospel.
“But there’s definitely conversations to be had about the league. Two teams folding makes us look, not amateur, but highlights the crisis we are having.”
England players moving abroad
The £5m salary cap, scheduled to return to £6.4m in 2024, has driven Genge’s pal Cowan-Dickie into the arms of Montpellier along with his fellow England international Sam Simmonds, as Exeter can’t balance the books amid their soaring market value.
Genge warns: “It’s a wake-up call. Squads are bigger because the game is getting harder but the cap has come down, so you can’t pay people as much. I just don’t see that as a good product.
“I always find it baffling that there are people that can afford to go above the cap and some who can’t, yet we adhere to the lowest marker of the sport.”
Genge highlights the problems English sides have staying competitive in Europe with the likes of Leinster, who have a plethora of well looked after Ireland players on central contracts. So, is that the answer for RFU bosses if they can summon the requisite money?
“Not necessarily central contracts, but I’d like to see some innovation and something creative with academy credits,” Genge says. Clubs currently get a total of £600,000 for homegrown players, capped at £50,000 per player.
“That’s all good if you are 21 or 22 but if you’re a 29-year-old second-row starting in the Premiership, they are going to be on a little bit more than that.” Genge advocates a more generous reward system where at least half of a homegrown player’s salary does not count towards the cap.
“How do we grow the financial part of the game? If people can’t afford it I understand but they probably aren’t going to do very well in the league.
“The money is completely different in football but if we talk about scale, Man City spend what they spend and Wolves don’t spend as much as Man City, but I don’t hear them complaining and saying they have to come down and spend the same as them or it’s a no-go.”
Genge on foreign investment: “I’d welcome any money to prop the game up”
So where can the money come from for rugby? “You’ve seen Cristiano Ronaldo take £250m a year in Saudi (Arabia), so I think there’s a bit of money out there,” he jokes. “Of course, I’d welcome (overseas investment), I’d welcome any money to prop the game up.”
When exploring the matter further, Genge caveats: “I’m not talking from a moral aspect, because if that came from slaughtering people then no, I wouldn’t welcome the money.”
The powers-that-be may need a cash injection if they have to pay out to those like World Cup winner Steve Thompson, whose debilitating early onset dementia means the ex-hooker cannot recall ever lifting the trophy in 2003, with England.
Genge sympathises greatly. “My son won’t be playing rugby, well, I can’t stop him but I’d tell him to understand the risks. I won’t be pushing him or taking him down the club off my own back.”
But he believes there will always be some risk involved in the game. “How can we minimise it, how can we control it and how can we make people more aware to make a conscious decision about whether or not they want to put themselves at risk?
“F*** me mate, you could fall out of bed and hurt yourself but you still go to sleep at night, don’t you. Do I want it to happen to me? No, of course not, but if I were to get two or three head knocks, I’d knock it on the head. Pardon the pun. I’d call it a day.”
Life after rugby
We consider what life after rugby looks like. Genge has just opened his first eco-conscious gym, Syn, in Leicester with business partner and former Tigers colleague Sam Aspland-Robinson.
The name stems from synergy and photosynthesis. Everything is locally sourced and sustainable, there are even e-scooters sitting outside the front door. “We’ve gone as far as we can within budget. It’s our first one but it’s really exciting and hopefully we can really push in that sector,” sums up Genge.
His environmentalism is a recurring theme in our conversation. He has just purchased his first electric car but does not mince his words when it comes to the Just Stop Oil protests that saw activists block motorways and deface paintings on several occasions last year.
“I think they are extremely disruptive when you hear about the ambulances that couldn’t get through and the knock-on effect. I actually welcome protests to a certain degree; I like people standing up for what they believe in but they could be smarter.
“Chucking soup over a painting is all well and good but I don’t know how much of an impact it’s making, I think it’s quite a waste of food. How hypocritical.”
On that note, Genge reveals he is trying to clean up his diet, the final one-percenter on his to-do list. He no longer eats meat on a match day but confesses that is a data-driven decision.
He enjoys watching Come Dine with Me at home to unwind and his dream dinner party guests are Muhammad Ali, Joe Rogan and any given dictator. Fans will hope he is still dining at rugby’s top table by the end of the Six Nations, that advice on staying hungry left ringing in his ears.
This exclusive interview with Ellis Genge first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Rugby World.
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