“My Wallaby friends say that, well though he played on the 1984 tour, Mark’s finest game for Australia was against Argentina in 1983, when he shut Hugo Porta out of the game,” said Gareth Edwards in the book 100 Great Rugby Players.
A fellow Roarer recently supplied me with a good quality DVD of the second Test between Australia and Argentina from 1983.
I was excited to review this Test and compare it with some of Mark Ella’s previous great performances.
I also wanted to see how it compared to Michael Lynagh’s 1993 second Test performance against France (which will be the topic of my next Roar article).
My first impression, before I finished the DVD, and before I could properly critique Ella’s performance was this: it’s just great watching Mark Ella. Whether this is or isn’t his best ever performance, he’s just so entertaining.
I’ve never seen a Mark Ella performance where everything goes right. There’s always a bad kick here and there, a risky play that doesn’t quite come off, or a random drop goal that shouldn’t be attempted.
But it never matters much. For every play that breaks down, there are nine or ten that are breathtaking. He’s just so exciting.
Quite often it seems as though he’s engaged the opposition the second he’s touched the ball, as if he’s playing on the gain line almost, and before he’s tackled, the ball is gone.
Everything moves so fast, and he always there to support.
There really was nothing like watching Mark Ella play rugby. It’s a great shame that he retired at 25.
The first opportunity Ella had to run the ball in this game, he ran down a large blind-side, was taken down in a tackle, but not before passing the ball on the outside to Michael Hawker, who in turn passed the ball to Peter Grigg.
Grigg was ankle-tapped before he could get a good pass to Poidevin. But Australia must have gained 35 meters the first instance they tried to run the ball.
It’s so exciting watching Ella at five-eighth. You have the sense something is on all the time.
After this play broke down, Argentina had the scrum feed. The ball came to Porta, who attempted to run around Ella. Ella herded him into a tackle.
The Australian forwards ran over Porta, and the ball came out on Australia’s side.
Ella kicked the ball cross-field to Brendan Moon for the first Australian try.
The first try was an example of poor defence by Argentina. All their backs stood up in the line in a compressed formation. They perhaps thought that Ella would run the ball in most instances, and not kick.
Shortly after Australia’s first try, there was another attempted play where Ella threw a cut-out pass to Slack, who found Grigg cutting back on the inside. He found Poidevin on the inside, who fired a bullet pass to Campese (it should have been a soft pass), and Campese dropped the ball.
But watching the fast ball movement and interplay was tremendously exciting. Once again Australia made good territory with running good lines, quick passing, and constant support.
The saddest part of this game is that it isn’t remembered for Mark Ella’s performance. It’s remembered for a controversial penalty try that Welsh referee Clive Norling awarded the Australians.
Hugo Porta committed another mistake. He attempted an up and under that went far too deep. Campese was at fullback and launched an exciting counterattack. Ella supported Campo on the inside. Ella was running out of space, but Poidevin was on the inside.
The ball was deliberately knocked down by the Argentine flanker Petersen.
The knock down was disappointing, because Campese launched the counter-attack from inside the Australian 22, and there’s a possibility (though not a certainty), that Australia could have scored a length-of-the-field try.
Even sadder was that while Norling’s decision didn’t affect the result of the game, it seemed to affect the Argentinians, especially Porta. Porta seemed pressured to try something extraordinary, and often got caught out by Ella.
Shortly after, Porta missed two penalty kick attempts. One hit the right upright post, the second hit the left upright post. I felt bad for Porta, because there was such a slim margin between success and failure, and Argentina were never in the game after those misses.
Australia scored their third try shortly after this. Argentina were defending their line, 5m out, and they had a scrum feed. Porta again tried to sidestep Ella, but Ella caught him in a tackle. The Australian forwards rushed over Porta’s body, and received the scrum feed for going forward.
Gordon Bray noted, “Porta getting his side into trouble there.”
Trevor Allan added: “Most uncharacteristic of Porta there, he’s usually very safe back in that area. He might be a little bit rattled at the moment.”
Australia scored immediately from this scrum. The halfback Parker had his pass disrupted, and Ella received bad ball that landed around his shoes.
Ella had Porta on his right, and another Argentine player on his left, both rushing up at him. Ella ran sideways and skirted a chip-kick into the right corner, and Brendan Moon scored again in exactly the same way as before.
While the first try Australia scored didn’t impress me much because of Argentina’s poor positional play, the third try did impress me. Ella had to execute it under pressure, and the kick was perfectly weighted.
Ella’s chip-kick reminded me a little bit of his “around the body pass” against Andy Hadan in 1980. Ella had no where to go, but he squeezed out a good chip kick.
The two tries Brendan Moon scored were from Mark Ella kicks, after Hugo Porta was tackled with the ball by Mark Ella.
Immediately after halftime, Ella almost constructed another try with a delicate chip-kick. That would have been the third try off an Ella kick.
Australia’s fourth try came when Ella stepped inside the Argentine flanker, Petersen, and gained about 10 metres.
The ball was quickly recycled, and the ball came to Chris Roche on the wing, who bustled over the try line for his first international try.
Australia’s final try was incredible.
Late in the game Ella intercepted the ball. Ella was running along the sideline, when Hugo Porta came across in cover to cut him off.
Ella lofted a hopeful pass in the air which Campese grabbed, shooting past one player in an explosion of pace, and then goose-stepping past the Argentine fullback to score a try.
This was a remarkable try.
Despite Australia scoring two tries due to Porta overplaying his game, I should give Hugo Porta some credit. Towards the end of the game he kicked a beautiful drop goal. And then later he constructed a try which can be attributed almost solely to him.
Porta decided to run down the blind, and was confronted by the Australian hooker Ross. Porta waved the ball about, fended off Ross, executed a scissors pass to the Argentine wing Campo (yes the Argentine wing’s name was ‘Campo’), who then passed to the Argentine second rower Milano, who scored.
What was impressive about Porta was the try came about almost solely through individual football skills, not by directing a backline. It was very impressive that one man could just turn it on like that, when he felt like it.
But this day belonged to Mark Ella. Australia launched several exciting attacks and counter-attacks. Two of Australia’s tries came from two Mark Ella cross-field kicks, the second of which was extremely difficult to execute.
The fourth try came from Ella stepping inside the Argentine flanker, and taking the ball up several meters beyond the gain line. And the last one can only be attributed to the telepathic understanding between Ella and Campese.
This was a fantastic game of rugby. It was incredibly exciting to watch, and I don’t mind saying I watched this DVD more than once.
So this begs the question: Was it Mark Ella’s best Test-level performance?
I think there are three contenders for Mark Ella’s greatest Wallaby performance. They are in matches against New Zealand (3rd Test 1980), Argentina (2nd Test 1983) and Ireland (1984).
The New Zealand Test was a phenomenal game because Australia’s backs blitzed the All Black backs in the first 20 minutes, and the game looked to be over by half time. It’s perhaps most famous for Ella’s “around the body pass” against Andy Haden.
The Test against Ireland was Ella’s most important Test he played in, because Australia would have lost that game without Ella. Australia had bombed three tries early on in the Test.
There was a forward pass from Poidevin, a bombed pushover try (the ball squirted out at the last minute), and Campese missed a try after running onto a clever chip kick from Ella.
Then Ireland gained momentum with 10 minutes to go. They had the lead. Ella kept Australia in the game with two clever drop-goals, and a try that highlights all that’s wonderful about Ella’s support play.
I think if I had to rate the performances, the Ireland match would be first, followed by that against Argentina and then the New Zealand game.
While this column is mostly concerned with the performance of Mark Ella against Hugo Porta, I have to briefly touch upon the brilliant performance of David Campese in this game.
This was Campo’s first Test at fullback for Australia.
It’s often forgotten that his preferred position was fullback, and that prior to his debut for Australia in 1982 on the wing, he had been a fullback in the Canberra club competition, and also for the Australian U21s.
The above mentioned controversial penalty-try resulted from a Campese counter-attack that begun in his own 22.
Later in the first half, Campese launched a counterattack shortly after Porta’s second missed penalty kick, where he beat three Argentinean players, before the play fell apart.
Shortly after halftime, Porta missed another penalty attempt to the left.
Campese caught the ball and shaped to kick, but then decided to run the ball. He then proceeded to beat no less than five Argentines! When he ran past the 22, he then launched a kick downfield that did not go into touch.
Australia’s chasing was good, and the Argentine fullback was forced to boot the ball into touch – a gain of almost the entire field!
Gordon Bray exclaimed: ‘He’s got to be the hottest prospect in any football code in Australia at the moment, this young man.’
But the best was yet to come. The try Campese scored was given a standing ovation from the crowd.
I think you’d have a hard time naming 10 better tries in Australian rugby history, to be honest.
Roger Gould was injured for this game, but Campese made such an impression on Trevor Allan that the Wallaby legend exclaimed:
‘“This guy is really and truly extraordinary at bringing the house down.
“His performance today really indicates that he really is a fullback purely and simply… But it’s going to make the Australian selectors think just what they’re going to do. Personally I don’t know what they’re going to do, because with Roger Gould fit, how could you leave Roger Gould out, but how can you leave Campese out?”
Mark Ella and David Campese were the best players on the field in this Test, by far!