Lynn McConnell

Southland-born Lynn McConnell is a sportswriter/historian with 40 years experience in journalism having been sports editor of The Evening Post and The Southland Times. Lynn has written several books including 'Behind the Silver Fern: Playing Rugby for New Zealand' together with Tony Johnson.

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SPECIAL FEATURE: Tom Ellison’s influence remains

NZ Rugby

Lynn McConnell     19 Apr 2017     NZ Rugby

New Zealand Rugby, as it is now known, is celebrating 125 years, and the man who gave the All Blacks their distinctive colours and their silver fern when recommending the national side's uniform at the first annual general meeting of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, was to become the first captain of an official national side.


His contribution in his short life was significant and still his connection gives, not only in rugby but in derivatives of the same game. His grand nephew Riki Ellison, a linebacker took part in three Super Bowl wins in six years with the San Francisco 49ers before he played three seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders, while Riki's son Rhett is a fullback and tight end for the New York Giants, having spent from 2012-16 with the Minnesota Vikings.

Distant cousin Tamati Ellison made four appearances for the All Blacks in 2009 and played Super Rugby for the Blues, Hurricanes, Highlanders and the Rebels, making 113 appearances while he also played 56 games for the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan. His brother Jacob made 32 Super Rugby appearances, 31of them for the Hurricanes while he also played for the Maori All Blacks in 2008.

Rhett Ellison visited the Blues at training while in New Zealand in 2015 and said a year earlier he had been visiting his grandfather and had gone around New Zealand searching out the family roots.

"That is what has been so cool, learning that history and trying to come back and connect with it as much as possible," he told 

He had attended the Test between the All Blacks and the United States in Chicago in 2014 and was familiar with rugby as a result of spending three years in his youth at school in Christchurch.

The All Blacks were the [New York] Yankees of rugby, he said.

"If you know anything about rugby at least you know about the All Blacks, and I always knew about them," he said.

Tom Ellison, or Tamati Rangiwahia Erihana as he was known to Maori, was born in Otago in 1867, was educated in Otago and Te Aute College and at Victoria College, which was part of the University of New Zealand, moved to Wellington where he was a clerk with Bell, Gully and Izard and became a translator at the Native Land Court. He studied law and built a practice around the Native Land Court. It has been claimed he was the first Maori to be appointed a solicitor, and while there is some debate over that, he was certainly among the first.

He played his rugby for Poneke and in 1885 won his first cap for Wellington, going on to play 23 games for the province, until 1892. He was a member of the New Zealand Native team to Britain and Australia in 1888-89 and captain of the New Zealand side to Australia in 1893.

He was a member of the management committee of Wellington's Rugby Union while still playing, starting in 1892 and serving his last year in 1892. He was a provincial selector also in the years 1892, 1897-98 and 1902. Just to cap it off he was also a first-class referee, controlling the Wellington v South Canterbury game in 1894.

In 1902 he published his famous book The Art of Rugby Football which not only offered his insights into the game but also a record of his playing career, and especially the tour of the Native side.

Much conjecture has developed around his role in the introduction of the wing forward, the controversial position that met its demise with the end of the 2-3-2 scrum by New Zealand. Known as 'the winger' the player in that position was regarded as an obstructionist and quickly became unpopular.

And while, Ellison may not have introduced the position, the earlier origins are contested, he did improve the role after being exposed to it when Wellington played Otago in 1891. 

The Dominion writer, and former wing forward, William 'Offside' McKenzie wrote that as a result of events in Dunedin, Ellison advanced the role of the wing forward.

McKenzie said the wing forward could be one of the 'finest and most hardworking on the field'.

"The ideal winger had to be as much of a back as he was of a forward, with a quick brain for finesse," he said. He had to be an all-round footballer in every sense of the word.

But where there could be no doubt about his influence was in lineout play. While regarded at the time as an uninteresting area of the game, Ellison changed that.

"Ellison used to make his play on the line, a feature of a tigerish attack on the goal, and time and again he succeeded. His practice was to take the ball with one hand. He would be on his way by the time the leather reached him, and gather it in his fingers as if he were a conjurer.

"On occasions, he would utilise one hand in taking the ball, while with the other, he would 'jab' his opponent. If that opponent was at all sleepy-eyed, he very soon 'saw stars'

"There has never been a lineout player like Ellison, nor, in fact, a man his equal in general forward play. This fact was admitted in England, in Stoddart's time [1888-89]…In his golden days he fought all the time. As soon as he had the ball, he carried it in two hands (not one), and he was as agile at dodging as he was at bumping.

"The bump, however, became his most favourite method of attack, especially when he went in for back play," McKenzie said.

A New Zealand-based writer in the Sydney Referee in 1916 said: "Columns might be written of the manner in which he used to fend, to dodge, bump and take the ball on the lineout…When occasion demanded T.R. Ellison could take a place among the backs – half or three-quarter – and was the finest of coaches. He could not only plan out great, deep, wily, and pretty schemes, but personally carry them through to triumphant execution.

"He could take his place in the front of a scrummage, and hook the ball with the best of them; his tremendous strength enabled him to burst through a pack, and then, when he was clear of the wreckage, and was well in the open, he was a perfect demon," he said.

"In his prime in those magnificent forward rushes, which characterised New Zealand's national game in Ellison's time, he was the prince of forwards."

Ellison died in Wellington in 1904, after suffering a breakdown, aged 36.

(Denis Dwyer's book Black Jersey, Silver Fern, Papers Past, Trove [Australia] and the New Zealand Rugby Register were consulted in preparing this feature).