When most people refer to the influence of Wallabies legend Mark Ella on rugby union, they recall his on-field wizardry and brilliance with the ball in hand.
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika did on Thursday at a Randwick Rugby Club fund-raising lunch that feted Australian rugby’s four “Invincibles”.
Ella, who played 25 Tests from 1980-1984 before retiring at the of age 25, is one; along with Col Windon, Ken Catchpole and David Campese – all of whom played for the Galloping Greens.
Sydney Morning Herald
“The best learning that I ever got was being around the players I got to play with, the coaches that I got to be coached by,” said Cheika, who also played for Randwick, notching up more than 300 games between 1985 and 1999.
As a coach, Cheika said he still drew on Randwick’s way of play – especially Ella’s game – by: “Going back into the archives watching … old videos of games and trying to use those same skills that you see guys like Mark delivering.
“People called us crazy when we were doing run-arounds this year. It is simple old skills that are the same.
“The game is the same. You still have to get the ball over the line.”
But Cheika said Ella’s influence on his rugby was not restricted to what happened after kick-off.
It was Ella’s pre-match antics that inspired Cheika’s light-hearted preparation for big games like the Super Rugby final, for which he gave every player a golf club with a personalised name on it.
He recalled a game in the late 1980s at Coogee Oval, when they were Randwick teammates, and Ella was in the throes of a comeback. He said: “I thought, ‘How good is this … the great Mark Ella. I’m going to get to play with Mark Ella.'”
After watching Ella bedazzle in Test rugby, especially in the 1984 grand slam tour, Cheika had no inkling of the impression Ella would leave on him in the warm-up.
“It was hot. It was a sunny day. Mark had all his wet weather gear on – right up to the collar, all done,” Cheika said.
Cheika said he then thought: “‘Is this some strategy? Is this why he is so good? He’s got his gear on, he warms up special’.
“I went over to have a look and there was a little mike coming out of the back and he had the earpiece in his ear.
“[He was] listening to the races just before kick-off.
“I thought to myself, ‘that man has got balance [in his life]. He’s got his game right.'”
Cheika laughed as he recounted the moment, but said “we have tried to replicate some of that” at the Waratahs.
“Before the grand final this year in the Super Rugby, when probably we were expected to give a big pump-up speech, we had a massive laugh in the dressing room,” he said.
The benefit, Cheika said, was that it “took the edge off” any pre-match tension.
As did a calm demeanour for Ella on that hot day back at Coogee Oval: “That is why he is a brilliant player.
“He is prepared. He knows what he has to do and he can just go out and enjoy himself.”
Which is exactly what Cheika wants the Waratahs to continue doing on his watch as coach.
“I’m not going to declare, ‘We are going to win the next five or four years in a row,'” Cheika said.
“I’m going to say, ‘Whatever we are going to do in the next few years, we are going to enjoy ourselves.’
“We are going to try and play the best football possible.”