Mark Ella

Mark Ella
Full name Mark Gordon Ella
Date of birth (1959-06-05) 5 June 1959
Place of birth La Perouse, New South Wales, Australia
School Matraville High School
Notable relative(s) Glen Ella
Gary Ella (brothers)
Rugby union career
Playing career
Position First five-eighth
Amateur clubs
Years Club / team
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, AM[1] (born 5 June 1959) is an 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 Glen (his twin) and Gary were educated at Matraville High School, where they learned to play rugby. All three went on to play for the Australia national team. Mark also played for Randwick and New South Wales domestically.

Playing career

The five-eighth

Bob Dwyer, former coach of the Wallabies, in his first autobiography The Winning Way, claimed Ella to be one of the five most accomplished Australian players he had ever seen. Dwyer hailed Ella as number one “for mastery of the game's structure.”[2] This is perhaps due to Dwyer's perspective on the five-eighth's role: “A five-eighth’s primary function is to draw defence and so open up space for the runners outside him."[3] This conveys how Ella approached playing the five-eighth position.

The London Observer described Ella as "the detonator which explodes the brilliance of the Australian backs at critical moments."[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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 passes 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.”[6]

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."[4]

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."[7]

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...”[5] Continuing his appraisal of Ella in The Scotsman, Mair wrote: “In his deft handling, the ball is often on in a fraction of a second.”[4]

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.”[8]

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, stating: “Nothing about the football of the likable Ella excels his backing up. His ability to materialise in a given spot is of the spirit world.”[4] 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 ...”[5]

Throughout his career, Ella’s ability to ‘keep the ball alive’ resulted in many remarkable tries. Such “faultless positional play in support,”[9] 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.”[10]

International career

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.

After rugby

Ella 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.[11] In 1997 he was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.[12]

In 2007 he published his eponymous autobiography, co-written with journalist Bret Harris.[13]

In January 2010 Ella commenced work with the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council as sports and events manager.

Ella works at NITV, Australia's free-to-air Indigenous television station. In 2011 he became Executive Producer and Head of NITV Sport,[14] where "highlighting Indigenous sporting achievement has been a driving force behind the ... Barefoot Sports [program]."[15]


In his first autobiography On a Wing and a Prayer former Australian winger David Campese called Ella ‘...the best rugby player I have ever known or seen.'[16] This was a contention he later reiterated in the book My Game Your Game by calling Ella, ‘The greatest player I have ever seen, or had the pleasure of playing alongside.'[17]

In 1984 former Australian fullback Roger Gould rated Ella ‘with Brendan Moon as the best Australian player I’ve seen.'[18] 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."[19] He also contends that Ella changed precepts on how the game could be played.[20] In 1991 former Australian flanker Simon Poidevin wrote in his autobiography For Love Not Money that, ‘Mark Ella remains the most talented Rugby player I have ever seen.’[21]

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.[20] 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,[20] 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.'[22] 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.’[23]

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.[24] 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.'"[25]

He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1984, and was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1987.[1][26] He received a Centenary Medal and an Australian Sports Medal in 2001.[27][28] In 2013, Ella was inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame.[29]


  1. 1 2 "Ella, Mark Gordon". It's an Honour. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  2. Dwyer 1992, p. 40.
  3. Dwyer 1992, p. 55.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Ella & Smith 1987, p. 54.
  5. 1 2 3 Edwards 1987, p. 55.
  6. 1 2 Ella 1995, p. 86.
  7. Ella 1995, p. 91.
  8. Ella 1995, p. 92.
  9. Dwyer 2004, p. 183.
  10. Edwards 1987, p. 56.
  11. "Ella, Mark ARU Hall of Fame" (Press release). ARU. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  12. International Rugby Hall of Fame
  13. Ella, Mark; Harris, Bret (2007). Ella: The Definitive Biography. Random House. ISBN 9781741666915. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  14. "NITV welcomes former Wallabies Captain Mark Ella as head of NITV Sport" (Press release). NITV. 29 September 2011. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  15. "Barefoot Sports". NITV programs. NITV. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  16. Campese & Bills 1991, p. 174.
  17. Campese et al. 1994, p. 238.
  18. Ella & Smith 1987, p. 55.
  19. Derriman 2001, p. 137.
  20. 1 2 3 Dwyer 2004, p. 67.
  21. Poidevin & Webster 1992, p. 198.
  22. Harris 1991, p. 62.
  23. Harris 2007, p. 275.
  24. Review of Mark Ella in The Observer
  25. Derriman 2001, p. 136.
  26. "Mark Ella AM". Sport Australia Hall of Fame. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  27. "Ella, Mark: Australian Sports Medal". It's an Honour. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  28. "Ella, Mark: Centenary Medal". It's an Honour. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  29. "Legends inducted into IRB Hall of Fame" (Press release). International Rugbhy Board. 18 November 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2013.


External links

Preceded by
Paul McLean
Australia rugby union captains
Succeeded by
Andrew Slack
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