Australian fly-half Mark Ella could have achieved a lot more on the international stage. He still done enough however, to be considered one of the all-time greats
Major teams: Randwick, NSW, Milan
Test span: 1980-84
Test caps: 25 (25 starts)
Test points: 78 (6T, 3C, 8P, 8DG)
David Campese calls him the best he’s ever seen and the only negative to Mark Ella’s career is its brevity because, after blazing a trail across Australia and Europe, he quit the international game at 25, seemingly unhappy at the more ‘serious’ approach of Wallaby coach Alan Jones.
Ella was a one-off, a genius. Few players down the years could match his sublime ball-handling skills but it was his attacking mindset that set him apart. Instead of defences looking to unnerve the fly-half, Ella turned the tables by putting pressure on defenders; he played so flat that they were forced to make decisions under stress and by standing so close to his scrum-half – generally, no more than three metres wide of him – he would draw the openside flanker on to him and take him out of the game.
Michael Lynagh, who played outside him on the 1984 Grand Slam tour, adopted much of Ella’s teachings for his own game, including the ‘catch, pass and support’ principle that underpins classic running rugby.
“Mark would say that if he touched the ball twice the team tended to score and if he touched it three times he himself tended to score,” Lynagh says. “His sleight of hand, his decoys and so forth, were mesmeric, and he was also a lovely communicator. He was great fun to play with.”
On that 1984 European tour, Ella scored a try in every Test – replicating his feat on the 1977-78 Australian Schoolboys tour – by following his pass and staying available as a support player.
In tandem with brothers Glen and Gary, Mark Ella had set the Aussie club game alight when guiding Randwick to five consecutive Premierships from 1978-82, and in the last of those years Mark was made Wallaby skipper – the first indigenous Australian to captain a national sports team.
He led his country in ten of his 25 Tests and his chilled-out character is highlighted by a tale told by ex-team-mate and Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, who recalls discovering Ella secretly listening to the races on an earpiece ahead of a comeback game by the No 10 in the late 1980s.
Ella played at Milan with kindred spirit David Campese before embarking on a coaching and media career.