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.
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
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
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.