• Rugby great Mark Ella was the first Indigenous person to captain a national sports team in Australia. (SBS News)
Mark Ella was the first Indigenous person to captain an Australian national sports team. But in the early days he had to use his fists to fight racism. Then he learned a far more effective way of dealing with the issue.
By
John Baldock

22 May - 7:06 PM  UPDATED 22 May - 8:16 PM

Mark Ella's place in rugby folklore is secure as both player and ground-breaker.

Born and raised in Sydney's La Perouse, alongside five brothers and six sisters, he went on to enter the Wallabies Hall of Fame.

But he's never forgotten his roots, and his role as Head of Sport for NITV keeps him engaged.

"There's a lot of respect for the elders that I've dealt with over the years," Ella said. "It's a unique culture that I'm very proud of being involved with."

The only man to ever score a try in every match of a Grand Slam tour of Britain and Ireland, Ella retired from international rugby aged just 25.

But his place in the sport's pantheon of greats was already secure.

That may not have happened if he hadn't found a way to deal with the abuse he and his brothers faced growing up.

"We probably responded by fighting, but after a little while we realised that we were leading by 50 points - that hurt more than throwing a few punches," Ella said.

Captaining Australia 10 times in his 25-test playing career reflected his impact on the sport in this country.

He spent five years living in Italy after ending his Wallabies career. During his time in Europe, he enjoyed raising awareness of his culture.

When asked why he looked different to other Australians he would respond: "No, I am Australian. I'm an Indigenous Australian, Aboriginal. And they'd go, 'Ooh'."

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It's been 50 years since the historic 1967 Referendum, and Ella remains incredulous that full recognition for Indigenous people hasn't yet been enshrined in the Constitution.

"The mere fact we can't take that simple step is beyond me," he said.

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Documentary (2009): Ella 7's