Wallaby fly-half Mark Ella retired from international rugby before he even reached his prime, yet his short presence at the top was tinged with pioneering greatness
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 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 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,” says Lynagh, who played outside Ella on the 1984 Grand Slam tour. “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 by following his pass and staying available as a support player. It replicated his feat on the 1977-78 Australian Schoolboys tour, when the tourists won all 19 games and scored 110 tries against six.
In tandem with brothers Glen and Gary, he 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 former team-mate and later Wallaby coach Michael Cheika, who recalls discovering Ella secretly listening to the races on an earpiece ahead of a comeback game by the fly-half during the late 1980s.
Eddie Jones, another who played with Ella at Randwick, grew up with him and knew better than anyone about his special qualities. When the now England coach was dishing out nicknames, he kept it simple with Ella. “He was God. He was that good,” he says in his book.
Ella played at Milan in Italy with kindred spirit Campese before embarking on a coaching and media career.