Greatest moments in Otago sport - Number 36

The Otago Daily Times counts down the 150 greatest moments in Otago sport.

No 36: Thomas Ellison captains first New Zealand team (1893)

Thomas Ellison. Photo supplied.
Thomas Ellison. Photo supplied.
Has there been a more influential and versatile person in the history of New Zealand rugby than this bloke?

Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison captained the first official New Zealand rugby team in 1893, having toured Great Britain with the ground-breaking Natives team in 1888.

He developed the wing forward style that served New Zealand sides well for decades, proposed the national team play in black with a silver fern, suggested players on tour should receive some reimbursement for their efforts, and wrote The Art of Rugby Football, one of the sport's pioneering texts.

Ellison was also a court interpreter, one of the first Maori admitted to the Bar, a three-time parliamentary candidate, a provincial selector and a referee.

He is a revered figure, and with good reason.

Ellison was born at Otakou in about 1867. When he was 15, he won a scholarship to Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay, beginning as a forward and then moving to the wing.

He joined the Poneke club, in Wellington, and played halfback. It was here he developed the wing forward role, designed to block defenders trying to disrupt passing from the base of the scrum.

Ellison made his Wellington debut in 1885 and joined the Natives tour three years later. It was an epic rugby odyssey, involving 107 games in 54 weeks, and Ellison finished with 43 tries.

In 1893, a full New Zealand team was selected to tour Australia. Ellison was named captain, playing in seven of the 11 matches in New South Wales and Queensland.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the national game was his fashion sense. At the first annual meeting of the New Zealand union, Ellison proposed the national side should wear a black jersey with a silver fern monogram, black cap and stockings, and white shorts.

When the team switched to black shorts in 1901, world rugby's most famous playing strip was in place.

Ellison also argued players should be paid the equivalent of their normal wages while on tour. The union sniffed and declined his proposal.

Ellison fell ill in September 1904 and died on October 2. He is buried at Otakou.