During a train trip yesterday, a rugby-mad passenger across the aisle asked who is the greatest Wallaby I’ve ever seen? In a nano-second I answered Mark Ella.
After a series of subsequent questions, he suggested I should write the results of our chat on The Roar today. And here it is.
The greatest Wallaby, and why is it Ella?
He’s the most intuitive and innovative footballer I’ve ever seen from any code – mercurial Mark.
There was nothing he couldn’t do on the rugby field, highlighted by his ability to somehow do the impossible like ghost his way through the equivalent of the front foot of Fort Knox.
Team-mates who trailed him were more often than not gift-wrapped an arm-chair ride into clear air. The tragedy is Ella retired at 25 after only 25 caps, at the top of his game, having scored a try in each of the history-making Grand Slam tour of 1984.
Other contenders: John Eales, and the leading light of the 40s and 50s, the head-geared centre, Trevor Allan.
The best pair of hands?
Shared by Ella and dual-international John Brass. No pass was too difficult for either, instanced by Ella being asked by super-keen rookie half-back Nick Farr-Jones where he wanted his passes on the Slam tour. Ella replied “You throw ’em, I’ll catch ’em”.
And, of course, he did. Brass could have said exactly the same words, for the same result.
Impossible to split them.
The most devastating defender?
There are many contenders but only one standout: Simon Poidevin, a man of steel, as many opponents will testify.
The longest kickers?
Three standouts in Roger Gould, Laurie Monaghan, and Jim Lenehan. Nobody could have survived a boot up the backside from any of them.
The left-footed Lenehan gets my nod with not only his length, but his accuracy.
He was an incredible athlete as well, winning Wallaby selection to the UK and France the year after he left St Ignatius where he was first X1, and the extraordinary double of GPS shot put and hurdling champion – twice.
The greatest full-back?
This is the hardest of them all with Dick Tooth, Terry Casey, Roger Gould, and Matt Burke – all of them fantastic in their era. But I’ve gone for Burke in a close finish with Tooth. Burke gets there on his consistent goal-kicking.
The greatest wingers?
How can you go past David Campese and that famous goose-step that left so many worthy opponents looking a tad foolish, grasping at thin air. But for sheer poetry in motion, there was no greater sight than Brendan Moon in full flight.
The greatest centres?
A battle between Trevor Allan, John Solomon, and Tim Horan, covering 50 years of Wallaby rugby. Allan gets my vote as the top individual centre, although as a centre combination, there hasn’t been a better pairing than Horan and his lifelong mate, Jason Little.
The greatest fly-half?
Mark Ella, but that’s taking nothing away from Phil Hawthorne, Stephen Larkham, Michael Lynagh, and Nev Emery, the father of former Australian keeper and NSW skipper, Phi Emery. Nev always wanted to wear a baggy green, Phil a gold jersey, but fate decreed the opposite.
The greatest halfback?
Catchpole reigns supreme, just like Ella, with his ability to see things that haven’t happened or to make thing happen. His passing was dart-like, his defence very solid, just a great rugby man.
He would have gone on for much longer had he not been cruelly torn apart by All Black Colin Meads, ending his career.
Meads was never punished, and was in fact knighted well after his diabolical performance.
Other 9s in the mix are Farr-Jones, John Hipwell, and Will Genia, when he’s on song.
The greatest no 8?
Mark Loane, and 40 years before him, Arthur Buchan. Both were great across the park, but Loane gets my nod for his consistency and power.
The greatest flankers?
The Wallabies have been blessed with many world-class 6s and 7s, with the likes of Col Windon, Keith Cross, Greg Davis, Greg Cornelsen, Simon Poidevin, and George Smith. But opponents give the answer, describing him as a man of steel: Simon Poidevin.
The greatest locks?
Two standouts in John Eales and Rob Heming – 50 years apart. Heming played in the no-lift lineout era, yet he could clap his hands above the crossbar every time from a cold start. They would have been unstoppable had they been able to team up.
The greatest props?
Topo Rodriguez, the king after his switch from a Puma to a Wallaby just before the Grand Slam tour of 1984. His combination with Andy McIntyre and Tommy Lawton was one of the most successful ever.
So too the combo of Ewen McKenzie, Phil Kearns, and Tony Daly for the 1991 RWC success. The other standout prop of the 60s was Jon White, an 80-minute performer with immense strength,
The greatest hookers?
Peter Johnson of the 60s and Kearns, with the honours to Johnson in an era where hookers had a different role of import.
And there you have it, bringing back many wonderful memories.