Mark Ella Champion Rugby Player
Mark Ella Champion Rugby Player
In sports, there are players with talent, the proper physical attributes to play at a high level for many years and the good fortune, in the case of team sports, to have teammates with whom they can effectively mesh to form a team the sum of which is greater than the individual parts.
Then, there is the higher level: players who take their prodigious talent and combine it with intuition and creativity, along with the commitment to learn every facet of their game better than anyone who came before them and redefining their position to such an extent that everyone who succeeds them aspires to emulate that player.
In Rugby, That Player Was Mark Gordon Ella (5 June 1959)
For some, even many perhaps, he is considered one of Australia’s all-time greats in the sport of rugby. For others, especially some of his peers who were themselves considered amongst the best, the accolades are less ambiguous, with some being so effusive in their praise of Ella that it almost makes one blush to simply read some of the comments he attracted.
Adequately chronicling everything he did in his short, meteoric career would require volumes.
To sum it up it one sentence: Mark Gordon Ella fundamentally and forever changed the way the five-eighth position is played.
Ella Was Born In La Perouse, New South Wales
Along with his twin brother Glen and younger brother Gary, he attended Matraville Sports High School in Chifley, a southeastern suburb of Sydney, where he learned to play rugby at an institution that is renowned for producing successful rugby league players. The school won the Waratah Shield in 1972, 1976 and 1977, and it is probable that Mark, Glen and Gary played prominent roles in those three of Matraville’s five Shields.
All three brothers would be found after their high schools days playing for the Randwick District Rugby Union Football Club, aka. The Galloping Greens and the Wicks. All three would also play as International representatives for the Wallabies and both Glen and Gary would back their playing days with stints as coaches and advisors in the years following.
Mark Ella is one of the first names mentioned when it comes time to define the fly-half and the role the position occupies in rugby. He is frequently mentioned in the same breath as fellow International Rugby Hall of Famers, Jonny Wilkinson of England, Phil Bennet of Wales, and South Africa’s Nass Botha.
Ella used everything at his disposal in order to become the quintessential first five-eighth. He had a keen sense of vision that allowed him to see what was going on around him, even when he was running at top speed. Even with bodies blocking his vision, he had an innate sense of where all his teammates and the opposition players should be and he had an uncanny ability to capitalise should his gaze find an opponent in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His passing and kicking skills were unassailable, but it was the way he combined all the basic components of an effective rugger and used them with heady game management abilities to order the back line, as well to discover and create opportunities for the outside backs following a breakdown, line-out or scrum.
In Ella’s case, he elevated those responsibilities to draw other teams’ defenses to him and create space for runners outside him. He would then run in support of the ball carrier. The world’s oldest Sunday Newspaper, the London Observer, called him “the detonator which explodes the brilliance of the Australian backs at critical moments.”
His unique contribution was to play the five-eighth position unlike any of the other players in that position during his era. He was a master of the flat attack style that found him standing closer to his scrum-half, a tactic which created difficult angles for back row forwards, so that those forwards had their ability to change direction impaired to the extent of allowing him to harass the midfield.
Ella also preferred a straight running style that would lure flankers toward him. He would wait until the last possible moment and then pass to the inside-centre occupying the gap created when the open-side flanker left his position thinking he would have the opportunity to crush Ella.
He was able to employ this tactic in large part due to his exceptional ball handling skills. Former Scottish international Norman Mair said of Ella’s skills in this regard: “Ella has hands so adhesive that when he fumbled a ball against Scotland in 1984, you would not have been surprised to see those Australians of the appropriate religious persuasion cross themselves.” High praise indeed from a normally taciturn race, the Scots.
Ella insisted that along with his expert positioning, the halfback pass him the ball as fast as possible. In his view, this gave him extra fractions of a second that he could use to evaluate his best possible course of action.
Using his vision to read constantly shifting plays, a trait that has defined the greatest players in many sports, that rare ability to react instinctively to the point of not always recalling afterward what had been done, was a primary characteristic Ella used to great benefit to initiate a backline movement. He was almost clairvoyant in his ability to move the ball down the touchline where the danger-men would find the ball perfectly delivered to them in wide-open space.
After executing to perfection, his running in support was considered almost otherworldly, taking a loop to get between the centre and wing, or even outside the wing.
The traits Mark Ella made appear almost casual and second nature were not only great for his team, but also served exceptional entertainment value to spectators without coming off as excessively flamboyant showboating.
Famous Moments Of His Career
He had one of the most famous moments of his career when he delivered a spectacular pass in the third test that led to a try and gave Australia the win for one of the few times in Bledisloe Cup history. Ella was to receive and deserve the honour of captaining the Wallabies international play against the All Blacks in 1982.
He toured the UK with the team in 1984 and scored a try in every test of the series, notching a rare Grand Slam that he had also achieved back in his Australian Schoolboys tour in the last 70s.
He then produced a moment even more shocking than his feats on the field when he walked away from the game in 1984 at just 25 years of age, forever leaving unanswered questions about what accomplishments would have come after.
Mark Ella was one of the five inaugural inductees into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame in 2005. That honour came almost a decade following a similar induction into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 1997. Further honours included Member of the Order of Australia in 1984 and induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1987, just three years subsequent to his playing days. He received the Centenary Medal and the Australian Sports Medal in 2001 and entered the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2013.
Perhaps even more gratifying to Ella would have been the praise heaped on him by his peers. Some of the greatest domestic and international rugby players ever to play were effusive in their praise. All of them could be adequately summarised with the phrase, oft repeated in various forms, usually with copious use of the words “best,” or “greatest,” along with phrases such as “most talented ever seen,” and “…most influential player of his generation.”