What Mark Ella and Rocky Elsom have in common

David Lord Columnist

By David Lord, David Lord is a Roar Expert

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    Rocky ElsomMark Ella knew exactly how Rocky Elsom felt yesterday. Gutted. In a shock move, Wallaby coach Robbie Deans stripped Elsom of the World Cup captaincy, and handed it to Super Rugby-winning Queensland Reds skipper James Horwill.

    That decision came from left field.

    In 1984, the then Wallaby coach Alan Jones relieved Ella of his captaincy, and installed Queenslander Andy Slack.

    That decision came from left field, as well.

    As tough as it may appear, both were right on the money.

    Mercurial Mark, still the most instinctive and intuitive footballer I’ve ever seen in any code, blossomed without the captaincy.

    He scored a try in every international as the Wallabies chalked up their one and only Grand Slam tour of England (19-3), Ireland (16-9), Scotland (37-12), and Wales (28-9).

    Nobody in the history of rugby has achieved such a personal feat. Not even an All Black, and they’ve won four Grand Slams, in 1978, 2005, 2008, and 2010, nor in the Springboks’ four Slams of 1912-13, 1931-32, 1951-52, and 1960-61.

    Who’s to say the Rock won’t blossom as well without having to worry about 14 team-mates?

    While Ella’s position was never under threat, Elsom has Scott Higginbotham breathing down his neck.

    That’s one of the major reasons why Horwill now has the reins, avoiding the possibility of dropping captain Elsom during the World Cup.

    We’ll see.

    The big bloke has a lot left to give, and it will be a huge bonus for the Wallabies’ Cup campaign if Elsom throws all of his 197cm-110kg frame into the fray.

    There were two other occasions when captaincy changes grabbed the headlines.

    In 1978, innovative Wallaby coach Daryl Haberecht, the man behind the extraordinary “up the jumper” try for NSW Country against Sydney at Millner, dropped a bombshell by replacing Mark Loane as captain with Tony Shaw – both Queenslanders.

    Like Ella is his day, Loane was the best rugby player on the planet at the time. But Shaw turned out to be the better skipper.

    Nonetheless, it was a big call by Haberecht. He always followed his hunches, and was rarely wrong.

    And back in the 60s, the Wallaby captaincy switched between crack half-back Ken Catchpole and prop John Thornett.

    Catchpole captained the Wallabies in his first Test in 1961, and was coach as well. He led the side for six Tests, before hooker Peter Johnson and full-back Jim Lenehan skippered a Test apiece, with Catchpole still in the side.

    Thornett was also in the lineup throughout, taking over the captaincy for 15 Tests. Catchpole was reinstated for four and Thornett for one.

    The revolving door captaincy and amateur administration between 1961 and 1967 was a shambles compared to today’s standards of professional organisations.

    In that same era, the Wallaby coach was a second-class citizen, called an assistant manager. The manager was the king-pin, his assistant just a necessary evil to make up the numbers.

    It was the manager who spoke at every official function. The coach was always at the back of the room, and hard to find.

    Not so these days.

    It’s the coach who is up-front and very visible; it’s the manager’s turn to be invisible.

    Deans was very visible yesterday, having made a captaincy decision that could well be the difference between a so-so performance tournament and holding aloft the Holy Grail.

    It took courage to admit he was wrong supporting Rocky Elsom from the start of this season, when the skipper was so short of match time because of injury.

    It was better to cut the mustard, before it was too late.

    And despite all the flak the coach is copping from former players and current commentators bemoaning Matt Giteau’s non-selection, the knockers are missing the point.

    They are remembering Giteau the way he was, and not the way he is, remembering him as a team man, and not a jack man. Deans has decided Giteau is a disruptive liability who could cost the World Cup.

    And again, Robbie Deans is right on the money.

    It was his finest off-field hour.

    David Lord
    David Lord

    David Lord was deeply involved in two of the biggest sporting stories - World Series Cricket in 1977 and professional rugby in 1983. After managing Jeff Thomson and Viv Richards during WSC, in 1983 David signed 208 of the best rugby players from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France to play an international pro circuit. The concept didn’t get off the ground, but it did force the IRB to get cracking and bring in the World Rugby Cup, now one of the world’s great sporting spectacles

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    The Crowd Says (25)

    • August 19th 2011 @ 7:32am
      Frank O'Keeffe said | August 19th 2011 @ 7:32am | ! Report

      It would be interesting to get Jim Boyce’s opinion of what Catchpole was like as captain compared to Thornett.

      Alan Jones was a winner. To be a winner you have to make the tough calls. The dropping of Mark Ella as captain was the right decision. I say that as the world’s biggest Mark Ella fan.

      So I was happy to hear Deans dumped Elsom as captain. I wasn’t sure if he was the coach to make the tough calls.

      According to Ella, Shaw was a better captain than Loane, primarily because he let Ella be Ella. Ella said Loane was very narrow-minded and wanted him to play like Paul McLean.

      Others like Poidevin, felt 10ft tall playing next to Loane. It was nice reading in Poidevin’s autobiography how the biggest reason he wanted to play France in 1981 was the mere chance to play next to Loane. That’s how respected he was by the players.

      Elsom… I doubt he’ll recapture the form of 2008, but if nothing else he has nothing to worry about. He can just focus on his rugby now.

      I’m actually pretty happy with the Wallabies leadership group. Elsom is still apart of it. But Deans has made the right call putting Pocock and Genia in that category (Barnes should be in there too). Both can be captains, both are irreplaceable players right now, will always be in the side, and if something happened to Horwill I’d like to see Genia be captain.

      I don’t see where this whole “Genia is too young to be captain” argument is coming from. Horwill was injured for the Reds and I’d argue Genia got better as captain.

      But for now Horwill is a fantastic, fantastic choice. For the first time since Gregan I feel good about who Australia has as captain.

    • August 19th 2011 @ 7:38am
      kingplaymaker said | August 19th 2011 @ 7:38am | ! Report

      Nice article David. Maybe Deans felt the team needed a more imaginative kick than Elsom was providing. It’s slightly strange in that Elsom did seem to be improving, but perhaps what Deans really fears and rightly is the All Black back row smashing his own into oblivion and winning the world cup. Certainly I would say that the back row’s superior physicality and dynamism was the critical difference (although there were others) between the two sides.

      Poor old Elsom, but he didn’t help his cause by not signing for next year. The captain failing to sign for the following season is not a great example to the team.

      It was strange to see Wayne Smith (the journalist, not the assistant AB coach), who would savage criticise Deans for anything and would probably physically carry him out of Australia so much does he despise the idea of a non-Australian coaching the Wallabies, was forced to concede through gritted teeth:

      ‘Certainly it is a squad well equipped to perform well at the World Cup, and maybe even win it.’

    • August 19th 2011 @ 7:51am
      sheek said | August 19th 2011 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      Hi David & Frank,

      I concur with both of you.

      Mark Loane was probably my first genuine Wallabies hero. But I also thought Shaw was the better skipper. Confirmed years later when Loane’s intransigent nature was brought to light.

      There’s another thing to consider here. Loane was a great leader of Queensland, but Shaw a better leader for the Wallabies. Some provincial captains, like players, don’t easily make the step up to the national team, which may require a different approach from its leaders.

      Taking the captaincy off Mark Ella was also the right call. There is also a difference between captain & leader. Ella was clearly the leader of the Wallabies’ attack. But Slack as captain was like a diplomat. He had a lot of off-field chores as well. Not everyone is cut out for the off-field chores. Ella wasn’t.

      This is why Horwill is such a better choice than Elsom. Horwill is not only a great leader on the field, he intuitively understands the requirements off the pitch as well, to an extent Elsom never could. Or liked.

      Now Elsom has the opportunity to be the leader of the Wallabies’ aggressive attack of the breakdown & crunching frontline defence, freed of the captaincy burden.

      With respect to Robbie Deans, many people are still death-riding him. We all make mistakes, but it is a measure of a man, or woman, who can correct a mistake once they realise the error.

      As I remarked yesterday, the decision to replace with Elsom with Horwill, which nobody predicted although many wished for, has energised the Australian rugby community. It is definitely seen as the right decision.

      • August 19th 2011 @ 9:09am
        Who Needs Melon said | August 19th 2011 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        I concur too. I hated the attitude that we all had to just shut up, accept Elsom was captain and get behind him. I think this and the Giteau decision must send a good message to the team too – Deans will show faith, back you and give you a chance but, if there are better options then it doesnt matter who you are.

        And you’re right, this has re-energized me and it might actually be good timing. It’s not like Horwill has not captaincy experience – I don’t expect this will change his game one bit.

        • August 19th 2011 @ 9:25am
          Nashi said | August 19th 2011 @ 9:25am | ! Report

          The other thing I like about the squad Melon is that Deans has looked for potential rather than competence. Giteau represents the safe bet. Deans knows that this will not cut the mustard against the ABs. He has to have game breakers where he can get them. He also has time to get them up to speed, expect to see plenty of action for the injury returns early on. I salivate at the prospect of a fit TPN, Vickerman, Palu, Barnes and Mitchell in the match 22. Compared to Fainga, Timani, Brown, Giteau and even Turner if only half of them make an impact you are still streaks ahead. I’d rather be in with a shout and get badly beaten than go down commendably while never threatening any day.

      • August 19th 2011 @ 7:34pm
        Handles O Love said | August 19th 2011 @ 7:34pm | ! Report

        Well, not one to blow my own horn, (OK, yes I am..), but I am sure I posted my theory on the captaincy on The Roar when Rocky was named captain initially. For those who missed it …

        I thought Deans must have done a deal with him. The deal would be Robbie would give Rocky the chance to hold on to the captaincy, and show that he was still an absolute nailed on first pick in the XV, and show that he could get match fit, Ih he could, I am sure Deans would have handed him the captaincy for the RWC.

        The quid pro quo being that if he didnt show either of those things, then he would step aside for New Zealand without a fuss. To those who say he looks gutted, we should remember that he looks like that in every post game press conference, win or lose!

    • August 19th 2011 @ 7:56am
      Owl said | August 19th 2011 @ 7:56am | ! Report

      Robbie Deans has certainly selected his best 30.

      What I find interesting and coincidental is that Giteau is out and Elsom has lost the leadership, when both under the covers of weak board had a hand in the sacking of their coach Andy Friend and Giteau was around to see the back of Nucifora. Shame there is no suitable replacement for AAC, but I am sure his time will come.

      Obviously Deans and the ARU manages player power better than those weak spineless glad handers at the Brumbies and Nucifora has a good memory.

      Well done Robbie Deans, keep weeding our garden.

      • August 19th 2011 @ 8:03am
        warrenexpatinnz said | August 19th 2011 @ 8:03am | ! Report

        Owl think AAC played better last weekend but both him and Rocky are still missing that link timing, that vision and running lines that will bring their support players in when making a break. If Mitchell gets back on the paddock and performs think AAC will be back to the bench as utility back up only as Mitchell at his peak would finish the break AAC made with a pass or just score the try himself.

    • August 19th 2011 @ 8:22am
      Tissot Time said | August 19th 2011 @ 8:22am | ! Report

      Do the Wallabies have to wait until another Ellaesque player has a personal feat of scoring a try in each international against the home unions before another Grand Slam is achieved? Whilst the personal achievements should be recognised rugby has and always will be a team game. Getting individuals to gel as a team has produced results for the Reds over the past few years. The captain and leadership team are instrumental in providing this gel. Methinks the WBs whilst they have good individual players are not yet a team although the result in Durban suggests they are heading in the right direction and Horwills selection will further enhance this.

    • August 19th 2011 @ 8:44am
      Harry said | August 19th 2011 @ 8:44am | ! Report

      Nice article David, very accurate on the history.
      Thought Elsom showed class and character yesterday.
      And who else can’t wait for the Brissy Bled and the RWC?

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