Modest as ever, and funny too, Wallabies legend Mark Ella made it clear the honour of being named on the new Ella-Mobbs Cup to be contested by Australia and England is a symbolic one, rather than a true measure of his playing career.
Ella, of course, starred during a different time, playing just 25 Tests between 1980 and 1984, and becoming captain for 10 of those.
The unions of Australia and England recently decided to ditch the Cook Cup, which has been the trophy for 25 years and was named for British explorer Captain James Cook.
The decision to honour Ella, and a former England player Edgar Mobbs, who was killed in the first World War, has predictably angered some – talkback radio hosts whipping up indignation at the thought that Capt. Cook was being “cancelled”.
Others admitted they felt old name problematic, due to the impacts British arrival had on Indigenous Australians.
Ella, though, was neutral.
“I understand the connotations and it certainly didn’t upset me,” he said Friday, standing in the middle of Coogee Oval with a Wallabies scarf draped around his neck and rugby ball nearby.
“To be fair, it’s been around a long time, I think 25 years. I think it’s time to recognise the rivalry between the RFU and Rugby Australia and what it means and having two former players as part of the new Ella-Mobbs Cup.
“This is the way it should be. It means a lot to me and my family, obviously I’ve got a very good looking twin brother and a younger brother. We played a lot of our rugby here and it meant a lot to us. I’m honoured that the Cup is in my name, our name.”
He said when first approached by Rugby Australia, he “didn’t really give an opinion.
“I’d been out of rugby for a long time. I was aware of the Cook Cup; it has been a little while and it took me a bit of persuasion from Rugby Australia to get me introduced. As much as rugby was very much a part of my life as you get older you move on and it’s great to be back within the circle of rugby.
“I retired early and a lot of people thought that was premature. I’ve always wanted to do other things. The 10 years I played rugby it was everything, but once I moved on I moved on.”
Asked if this was a reward for his career or a mark of the game’s continued embrace of indigenous culture, Ella said: “I think it has to be both. There’s no way I could say that Mark Ella deserved it. I’m representing the Indigenous population.
“We’ve had many Indigenous players over the years with the latest obviously being Kurtley Beale. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved within rugby and there’s many more to come.”
He said he thought Rugby Australia was doing their best in promoting Indigenous culture, despite wider issues in the game.
“Like other sports, it’s not easy. But as long as they don’t give up hope and (stop) believe that there is talent there and there are opportunities that that they’ll keep on trying,” Ella said.
“It’s getting better. Bigger and better. I listened to the last couple of Tests and we’ve been acknowledged and that’s a big step from Rugby Australia and I hope it continues,” Ella said, referring to the Indigenous jerseys the Wallabies sometimes play in and the welcome to country speeches before Tests.
As for emerging talent: “It’s not easy, you’ve got to invest in the next generation. There are a number of Indigenous players at private schools. We just need to believe that it can be done and keep on trying.”
Ella will be on hand to see the trophy unveiled in Perth next weekend, and it features some artwork by his niece, tied to theme of his old nickname, “mullet”.
“Now that might sound funny to many people, but my dad was a net fisherman and we caught mullet right throughout our summers and my brothers Glen and Gary again played a big role in that,” Ella said.
“When you come from a family of 12 you don’t really have a lot to argue when food is put in front of you, so we had mullet, baked mullet, skin mullet, mullet soup, anyway you could eat mullet was the way it was. Even to this day there are only two people who call me “mullet” and that’s David Campese because he’s a … nice person and Wally Lewis.”
Ella is looking forward to a catch up with England coach Eddie Jones in Perth.
“We’ve known each other since we were three years old. We did kindergarten, primary school and high school (together). I know my twin brother Glen and Eddie are thick as thieves. We’ll have a few laughs and giggles when I do catch him,” he said.
“[Jones] always had a sharp tongue and he didn’t hesitate in telling the referee or his opposition what he thought of him and we used to have a lot of fun having pot shots at each other. I better not say too much, he might get the shits with me.”
Ella played just three times against England, and one of those was for the Australian Schoolboys at Twickenham.
“There was the London fog and you could barely see the sideline and I must admit I got the ball for the very first time and I kicked the living daylights out of it and my brothers said, ‘what are you doing? You never do that?’
“I said, ‘well, I’ve always wanted to kick the ball out of sight and I’ve just done it today.’ Other than that, I played England at Twickenham a long time ago and in 1984. Playing at Twickenham was one of the highlights of my career.”
And with that, Ella took a long look at Coogee Oval, the place he once glided over as if on a magic carpet.
“It’d feel better if I could get that football and I could see if I could still kick a field goal. No, no, I’d pull a hammy,” he laughed.