- Mark Ella
Mark Ella Full name Mark Gordon Ella Date of birth 5 June 1959 Place of birth La Perouse, New South Wales, Australia Nickname elzz School Matraville High School Rugby union career Playing career Position First five-eighth Amateur clubs Years Club / team Randwick Provincial/State sides Years Club / team Caps (points) New South Wales National team(s) Years Club / team Caps (points) 1980 - 1984 Australia 25 (78)
Mark Gordon Ella (born 5 June 1959, La Perouse, New South Wales, Australia) is an Indigenous Australian former rugby union player, often considered as one of his country's all-time greats in that sport. In a relatively short career (he retired in 1984, aged 25), Mark Ella established himself as one of the all-time greats in world rugby union.
He and his brothers Gary and Glen were educated at Matraville High School, where they learned to play rugby. All three went on to play for the Australia national team. Mark was generally regarded as the best of the three, earning 25 caps in a brief but brilliant career stretching from 1980 to 1984.
Ella the Player
The flat attack
Playing at five-eighth, Mark Ella was a proficient exponent of a style of attack often referred to as ‘the flat attack’ – a close-quarters game built on constant support. The style is applied in one specific area of play – open-side attack by the backline with the ball in hand. There are several obvious characteristics of this style. Firstly, rather than standing deep, the attacking backs stand flat. The philosophy being that an attacking team cannot put the opposing defence under pressure until it comes under pressure itself. (Dwyer, 1992, p. 24) In the case of an attacking side making a break the opposition cover defence will possibly be deprived of the necessary time to make the defending tackle. Because support play is crucial when utilising the flat alignment, standing flat had its advantages.
Mark Ella explained these advantages in the book Running Rugby: “When receiving the ball you must be almost abreast of the player passing to you. If you take the ball a few metres behind him, he is automatically out of the game until you move ahead of him. This means several moments are lost before he can run in support, which is a delay no team can afford.” (Ella, 1995, p. 17) Because rugby laws require that players pass the ball backwards, standing flat makes it easier for the ball carrier to run ahead of his support, thus bringing them back into the game.
Secondly, the backs are required to literally run straight, parallel to both side lines, to commit their opposite number into tackling them. This provides the attacking team an advantage in numbers. Bob Dwyer explains this advantage in his autobiography The Winning Way: “It (the attacking team) can always inject the fullback or blind winger, or both, into the backline and so end up with an extra man, or men. The opposition cannot do this in defence, of course, because not knowing where the attacking team is going to direct the ball, it has to keep all parts of the field covered. It has to have a fullback in the fullback’s position and a blind-side winger. Once the attacking movement is under way, however, the attacking team begins to lose its advantage in numbers whenever an attacking player passes the ball without in some way engaging the defender. If there are five attacking players opposed by four defenders and the first attacking player passes the ball without occupying the first defender, the attacking players will then be outnumbered by the defenders four to three.” (Dwyer, 1992, p. 24)
Because proponents of the flat alignment are expected to execute their moves near the gain line, where they subject themselves to the sudden pressure of the opposition engaging them, it is also vital that players stand close together, so they do not become separated or isolated from each other. Standing close also increases the opportunity for support, which is vital when players commit themselves to be tackled. In regular circumstances, standing flat often allows the opposition a quick opportunity for an intercept. Standing close together ensures the ball can be moved along quickly as the opposition line rushes towards you, making it less likely for the opposition to intercept the ball. This requires safe handling skills and refined passing ability as it drastically increases the speed at which the game is played. Players are expected to employ “sympathetic passing”, which means passing the ball in a manner that makes it most likely for the player to catch the ball.
This is a rare and seldom seen style of rugby as it involves considerable risk. As a method of attack it requires players be well practised, disciplined and have confidence as it is liable to break down. In particular, it enforces tremendous pressure on the attacking inside backs. Mark Ella explains the difficulty involved in applying oneself to this method of attack: “A team has to have an enormous amount of discipline to play the running game properly. The running angles need to be just right, the support play has to operate like clockwork, the forwards have to be exactly coordinated, and all fifteen players have to be tuned to the same wavelength.” However, the application of the flat alignment by the Wallabies in the early 80s, with Ella as the chief architect of their plays, brought Australia what was then, unprecedented success in their rugby history.
In his first autobiography The Winning Way, former Australian rugby coach Bob Dwyer acclaimed Ella one of the five most accomplished Australian players he had ever seen, hailing him as number one “for mastery of the game’s structure” (Dwyer, 1992, p. 40). This is perhaps due to his perspective on how the five-eighth should operate. “A five-eighth’s primary function is to draw defence and so open up space for the runners outside him” (Dwyer, p. 55). This conveys how Ella approached playing the five-eighth position. Once described by the London Observer as ‘the detonator which explodes the brilliance of the Australian backs at critical moments’ (Ella & Smith, 1987: 54), Ella figured prominently in Australia’s rugby success during his career, trapping in defenders and unleashing team-mates into space, before running in support of the ball carrier.
A proficient exponent of the flat attack style, Ella’s approach to playing the five-eighth position was unique and different from that of any other five-eighth of his era. Ella’s method of attack involved many obvious characteristics different from those of his five-eighth contemporaries. Gareth Edwards writes in 100 Great Rugby Players, “Firstly, he stands closer to his scrum-half than most other stand-off halves I have played with or against, so that he pulls back row forwards on him at an angle which makes it hard for them to change direction, once he has released possession, to harass the midfield” (Edwards, 1987, p. 55). Ella describes the distance from which he stood from the scrum-half in his book Running Rugby, “Generally, I stood about 5 metres from the halfback and about 4 metres behind him. According to the old formula for the right-angled triangle, this means I was no more than 3 metres wide of him” (Ella, 1995, p. 86).
Relatively straight running was a distinguishable trait associated with Ella’s game. This was intended to draw defenders towards him at a certain angle and help unleash his team mates into gaps. Ella wrote: “By standing close, the five-eighth ensures that he draws the open-side flanker. Any five-eighth standing close will look like a sitting duck to the flanker, who is therefore keyed up to flatten him. This is just what the five-eighth wants. Provided he runs fairly straight, the flanker will not be able to resist coming at him, and at the appropriate moment, having drawn the flanker, the five-eighth unloads to the inside-centre. The moment this happens the flanker is out of the game, for he now has to turn around and chase. On the other hand, if the five-eighth stands wide or if he does not run fairly straight, the flanker can approach him at an angle. If the five-eighth then unloads, the flanker can continue on the same angle and nail the inside centre.” (Ella, 1995, p. 86)
Standing flat demands exceptional ball handling skills, which were a hallmark of Ella’s game. Ella’s dependable hands were lauded by former Scottish rugby international Norman Mair in the Scotsman: ‘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’ (Ella & Smith, 1987, p. 54). Concerning the manner in which Ella regularly received the ball from his scrum-half; Ella gave no quarter to the speed at which the ball was delivered to him, regardless of how close he stood, trusting in his ability to safely hold the ball. Ella writes: “Once you have positioned yourself, the next thing is to demand a fast pass from the halfback. The quicker the ball reaches you the better, for every fraction of a second is important to the five-eighth, given that the opposition can be on top of him in less than two seconds. I used to insist on having the ball passed to me like a rocket (Ella, 1995, p. 91).”
Ella possessed a distinguishing trait of instantaneously igniting a backline movement. His vision and ability to ‘read the play’ is evidenced by his much-vaunted passing game. Gareth Edwards notes, “He wastes no strides holding the ball he does not want to use, and flips it instantly on its way towards the wide open space down the touchline where danger-men like David Campese prowl” (Edwards, 1987, p. 55). Continuing his appraisal of Ella in The Scotsman, Mair once wrote: “In his deft handling, the ball is often on in a fraction of a second” (Ella & Smith, 1987, p. 54). This, however, does not entail Ella passing the ball as fast as possible. The execution of Ella’s backline ploys were expertly controlled by the timing and speed of his passes. Ella writes: “Quick passes are often a sign that the five-eighth is not reading the play. He (the five-eighth) is throwing a quick pass automatically, believing this is what he ought to be doing, without making an assessment of the play and of the opportunities that might exist at that moment. By doing so, he is handing the initiative back to the opposition.” (Ella, 1995, p. 92) By engaging the defence so quickly and suddenly executing a backline movement, Ella was able to place the opposition defences under immediate pressure.
Mair concluded his appraisal of Ella’s form in the famous 1984 Grand Slam tour in The Scotsman by stating: “Nothing about the football of the likeable Ella excels his backing up. His ability to materialise in a given spot is of the spirit world.” (Ella & Smith, 1987: 54) The extent to which Ella supported his team-mates has been gauged by Gareth Edwards who wrote: “Having delivered his pass, he invariably, it seems to me, keeps moving, getting himself between centre and wing on an extended loop – or even outside his wing! Such off-the-ball running is a true sign of greatness...” (Edwards, 1987, p. 55) Throughout his career, Ella’s ability to ‘keep the ball alive’ resulted in many remarkable tries. Such “faultless positional play in support” (Dwyer, 2004, 183) resulted in a continuity of play which was regarded by many to have tremendous entertainment value. In 100 Great Rugby Players, Gareth Edwards concludes his writings on Ella by stating: “In this book, we are mainly concerned with players’ outstanding ability to play the game, but it is worth adding here that Mark Ella provided tremendous entertainment to spectators, as well as demonstrating his skills.” (Edwards, p. 56)
In the 1980 Bledisloe Cup series, one of Ella's most famous moments arose. Mark delivered a "round the body pass" in the third test which led to a try by Peter Grigg. In 1982, he was given the honour of captaining the Wallabies (Australia) against the All Blacks (New Zealand). During that tour, Mark linked up with David Campese for the first time and the two immediately formed a formidable on-field partnership.
In 1984 questions were asked of Mark's suitability to lead the Wallabies and so the Queenslander Andrew Slack was given the captaincy instead. After a narrow defeat against the All Blacks the Wallabies toured the UK and achieved victory in all 4 tests. Mark achieved a "Grand Slam" by scoring a try in every test match of the series, something that he had also accomplished on the 1977/78 Australian Schoolboys tour. At age 25, Ella stunned the rugby world by announcing his retirement, turning down many big money offers in the process.
Place in History
In his first autobiography former Australian winger David Campese called Ella ‘the best rugby player I have ever known or seen (Campese & Bills, 1991: 174).' This was a contention he later reiterated in the book ‘Your Game My Game’ by calling Ella, ‘The greatest player I have ever seen, or had the pleasure of playing alongside (Campese & Meninga, 1994: 238).'
In 1984 former Australian fullback Roger Gould rated Ella ‘with Brendan Moon as the best Australian player I’ve seen (Ella & Smith, 1987: 55).' Former Australian inside centre Michael Hawker has said that ‘Mark Ella was one of the greatest players – or probably the greatest player – I’ve ever seen (Derriman, 2001: 137)’. He also contends that Ella changed precepts on how the game could be played (Dwyer, 2004: 67). In 1991 former Australian flanker Simon Poidevin wrote in his autobiography that, ‘Mark Ella remains the most talented Rugby player I have ever seen (Poidevin & Webster, 1991: 198).’
Rugby league player Wally Lewis, who played rugby union with Ella in the 1977/78 Australian Rugby Union Schoolboys side, has called Ella the best player he’s seen in rugby union or rugby league (Dwyer, 2004: 67). Dual international Michael O’Connor, who played with Ella at inside centre, outside centre and wing for Australia, considers Ella the best player he ever played with – in rugby league or rugby union (Dwyer, 2004, p. 67), and of Ella said, ‘Mark Ella was a genius. He was the best player I played with or against in both codes. He could sum up a situation instinctively… If I said to Mark “Okay let’s run it”, no problem – the next moment you’d have the ball in your hands… I don’t think I’ve ever called for the ball from Mark and not received it (Harris, 1991: 62).’ He would later add, ‘I still think he is the best player I played outside of. I enjoyed playing outside him. Such good service. Good, quick ball. You knew playing outside Mark something was on every time. Have a crack. You won’t die wondering’ (Harris, 2007, p. 275).
In 2002 former Welsh eightman Eddie Butler, who played against Ella in 1984, ranked Ella at number one in his list of the 10 best fly-halves in the history of rugby union. In 2003 Butler called Ella "My all-time favourite [player]' and asserted he was '… by a long way the most influential player of his generation. Just took the passing game and the support game and the reading game and just stretched, stretched them into new areas.'" (Derriman, 2001, p. 136)
Until recently Mark Ella lived on the Central Coast of NSW but now resides in a modest ground floor apartment in Pyrmont Sydney near Star City Casino. Mark is now a marketing and public relations specialist and a director of the Sports and Entertainment Group. In 2005 he was honoured as one of the inaugural five inductees into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame.. In 1997 he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.
In 2007 he published his eponymous autobiography co-written with journalist Bret Harris. In January 2010 Mark commenced work with PortMacquarie Hastings council as sports and events manager
Australian national rugby union captain
- Sporting Heroes
- Ella - book publishers web site
- Mark Ella in conversation with Richard Fidler (audio available)
- 2003 Interview in the Independent
- Clarke, David; Mason, Roy and Samuelson, Stephen (1999) Test Rugby Lists, Noble Park, Victoria: The Five Mile Press
- Dwyer, Bob (1992) The Winning Way, Rugby Press Ltd
- Dwyer, Bob (2004) Full Time - A Coach's Memoir, Macmillan
- Edwards, Gareth (1997) 100 Great Rugby Players, Queen Anne Press
- Ella, Mark (1995) Running Rugby, 1995, ABC Books
- Ella, Mark & Smith, Terry (1987) Path to Victory, ABC Books
Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009Alex Ross• Jon White • Tony Miller 2010 2011Herbert Moran
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