Today is the start of a regular feature about people who have been involved in the Poneke Football Club here in Wellington. It could be about any rugby club up and down New Zealand, or around the world. In fact it could be about any sort of sporting or social or service or professional voluntary group, because it’s really about people who help create communities by getting in and giving it a go.
What else were you going to do with your one short life?
Is there a more kiwi story than that of Thomas Rangiwahea Ellison?
Start with the genealogy. He was born in Otakou in 1867, the third of twelve children of Nani Weller (Hana Wera) and Raniera Taheke Ellison.
His mother was the only child of Edward Weller, who established the Otakou whaling station in 1831, and Nikuru, a daughter of Te Matenga Taiaroa and Hine-i-whariua of Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe.
Tom’s father, Raniera, was the son of Thomas Ellison and Te Ikairaua of Ngati Moehau, a hapu of Te Ati Awa. He had come south for the gold, discovering the Maori Point seam on the Shotover River with his mates Hakaraia and Henare Patukopa. Raniera was a great supporter of Te Whiti and Tohu when they were so unjustly imprisoned in Dunedin.
The story goes that young Tom was introduced to rugby around 1881 by his Taiaroa cousins, Jack and Riki. In 1882 Tom was off to Te Aute College on a scholarship, playing for the First XV which won the Hawkes Bay seniors in 1883 and 1884.
By 1885 Tom was living in Wellington, where he joined the Poneke club which had been formed three years earlier. They won the Wellington competition four years in a row 1886-9.
Over his career he would play in the forwards and backs as well as halfback, and he was renowned for his versatility, strength and cunning.
Tom was recruited to the New Zealand Natives team that toured the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand in 1888/9. The Natives was a private enterprise affair (the New Zealand Rugby Football Union wasn’t formed until 1892), led by the promoter Thomas Eyton and captain/coach Joe Warbrick. Which explains why they played a staggering 107 matches in ten months, for a record of 78 wins, 6 draws and 23 losses. Often they were playing three matches a week. Oh, and they also played 9 games of Victorian (Aussie) rules and 2 games of soccer to help pay the bills.
During the Natives tour Tom scored 113 points, including 43 tries.
Most importantly, Tom was a rugby thinker. He argued for players to be paid while they were on tour. He was responsible for introducing the wing forward position to New Zealand, which would cause such controversy internationally until it was outlawed by the IRB in 1932. Basically, it was a tactic used in the 2-3-2 scrum of the day to give extra protection to the halfback. The wing forward would feed the ball to the scrum, then join the front-row, making it harder for the opposing scrum half to get around. In 1902 he summed up all his rugby thinking in The Art of Rugby Football.
And it was Tom, at the NZRFU’s first AGM in 1893, who proposed the black jersey with a silver fern emblem as the uniform for the national team. (The shorts were white knickerbockers in the early days, with the switch to black shorts in 1901.)
How appropriate, then, that Tom was chosen to captain the first official New Zealand rugby team that year during their eleven match tour of New South Wales and Queensland. He played seven of the matches, scoring 23 points from two tries, six conversions and a goal from a mark.
That was largely it for Tom’s playing days, although he stayed involved as an administrator and referee. His energy turned to the law (one of the first Maori admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1902, accredited as a translator for the Maori Land Court, advocating for redress for Ngai Tahu), and three times standing unsuccessfully for Parliament in the Southern Maori seat.
Tom married Ethel Howell in 1899 and they had three children. Two died in infancy. Hinemura, born in 1900, survived to 1989.
He was taken seriously ill in September 1904, apparently with tuberculosis. He died on 2 October aged 36. He was going to be buried at Karori but the cortege was intercepted at Porirua Railway Station and, with the agreement of his wife, he was taken back to Otakou.
His headstone reads:
One of the greatest rugby footballers New Zealand ever possessed.
True enough, but not all of it. Stand back and see the breadth of his kiwi life and it’s much more than football: from his parents’ birth to his daughter’s death spans a century and a half of relentless change, encompassing more than a share of sorrow and injustice and striving and, eventually, reconciliation.
And in the middle of it all, Tom: son, player, administrator, lawyer, husband, father, thinker, advocate. Contributor.
An anonymous writer in 1916 summed him up, maybe not just as the player but also the man:
When occasion demanded, T R. Ellison could take a place among the backs—half or three-quarter—and was a fine coach. 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.