ON A CHILLY EVENING in the Manly Roos clubhouse at Keirle Park, a legend of Australian rugby held court.

Gary Ella was invited by Manly Junior Rugby Union President Peter Gibson to address the U/10 and U/11 rep teams and “encourage respect and inclusivity, and educate the kids, particularly around NAIDOC Week.”

“The whole theme was about enjoyment of rugby and respect for teammates and opponents, on and off field,” Gibson told The Beaches Champion.

Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain images of people who have died.

Respect: Gary Ella tells his story. Pic: MJRU.

Ella asked if any of the kids knew what NAIDOC stood for. No hands up. He explained: National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.

Had anyone heard of the Stolen Generation? Nearly all hands up.

Ella continued: “One third of Indigenous kids were taken by welfare. I knew kids, one day they wouldn’t be there anymore. We didn’t know where they went, what happened. Then they’d turn up at high school years later with a new name.”

Ella grew up at La Perouse in a three-bedroom house of 12 kids – seven boys, 5 girls.

“Any time someone knocked on the front door we’d all bolt out the back, hide in the garden.

“My parents used it as motivation. If you don’t go to school every day, if you don’t work hard, you’ll be taken away,” Ella said.

Gary Ella presents England captain Courtney Lawes with the Ella-Mobbs Trophy. Pic: Rugby.com.au

The Ella’s house was modest. The only tap was outside. There was one power-point into which was plugged the television.

His sister Marcia (who would play netball for Australia) dated a plumber and the tap was moved inside. Ella’s dad Gordon joked that he hoped another daughter would go out with an electrician.

They’d play football every day. Touch and tackle, half on the lawn, half on the gutter-free road.

“You didn’t want to get tackled on the road,” Ella said. “So we’d pass the ball really quickly. That’s where our skills came from.

“People always said we were naturally talented. But we developed our skills through fear!”

Glen, Mark and Gary Ella on the 1977/78 Australian Schoolboys Tour of the United Kingdom. Pic: Nick Rogers/Daily Mail.

From there it was to Matraville High where Ella and twin brothers Mark and Glen played rugby with [current England coach and Randwick legend] Eddie Jones and future Wallabies five-eighth Lloyd Walker.

The Ella brothers were subsequently stars of a famous schoolboys tour of the United Kingdom in 1977 alongside Michael O’Connor, Wally Lewis, Michael Hawker, Chris Roche and Tony Melrose.

Onwards they want to famous Randwick District Rugby Union Football Club where Ella recalled playing in eight grand finals and winning seven.

“And guess who we lost to [in 1983]?” he asked.

The kids were as one: “Manly!

“That’s right,” Ella smiled. “And they never let us forget it.”

Gary Ella in action for NSW Waratahs. Pic: Getty Images.

Along the way, as it is for most if not all Indigenous sports people – Indigenous people in general – the Ella brothers wore abuse for the colour of their skin. Unlike many others they had a robust defence.

“We’d always just point people to the scoreboard,” Ella said. “And it was always easy to do – at school we only lost one game in three years.

“Plus there was always three of us – people are less inclined to try something on if they know they’ll get three instead of one.”

A lot of Ella’s Indigenous team-mates coped less well.

“They were very hurt at being called names,” Ella told the assembled kids.

“A lot of them came from a poorer environment like where we grew up in but didn’t have the support network that we did.”

A rock for the boys was their mum, May, and dad, Gordon. Ella said his parents watched every game they played. And that mum was particularly supportive.

“Before we’d play games mum would actually get herself psyched up.

“Then whenever she heard something on the sideline, if anyone was abusing her boys, she’d let them have it.

“She was a pretty tough lady,” Ella said.

Glen, Gary and Mark Ella with their mum May in 1983. Pic: Getty images.

The brothers and by extension Randwick were widely respected. They were admired as champion footballers but also as fair competitors.

It’s a thing Ella stressed on Wednesday night.

“It’s important to win, for sure. But more important is the way you win. You need to play with respect for your opponent.

“If you play against people who are not from the same background as you are, it’s so important you respect them as well.

“It [racism] happens a lot. It happens too often.

“But it never happened once when I was playing against Manly or coaching at Manly,” Ella said.

Gary Ella, President of MJRU Peter Gibson and Manly Marlins General Manager Rob Gallacher. Pic: MJRU.

The Manly rugby community was rocked last year when allegations of racism surfaced at the U/14 State Championships.

Gibson said that the incident led to a conversation with Ella on racism in sport and the impact it can have, intended or otherwise.

“Manly Marlins has always had a rich tradition of inclusion in its playing and coaching ranks, including both Gary and Glen Ella,” Gibson said.

“And I thought it not only worthwhile but important that we reinforce to our kids the importance of respect for people of different backgrounds.

“Gary was incredibly generous with his time when he agreed to come and speak to the playing group.

“It was educational for the kids and the broader group and the feedback afterwards from parents and coaches was really positive with regard to Manly JRU addressing such important issues.”

On Saturday night at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Ella presented the captain of England, Courtney Lawes, with the Ella-Mobbs Cup, the trophy named for his brother Mark and England player Edgar Mobbs, who played nine Tests for England before being killed on the World War I western front in 1917.