Each week NEIL CADIGAN will look back on some of the most eventful games and most famous names in the club’s 70-year history and bring them back to life.
Many people who know the famous surname of Ella, and look at Eels’ hero Steve’s incredible record of 92 tries in 157 games, don’t realise the full achievement of the ‘Zip Zip Man’.
Steve Ella looked destined to lose not just his Zip, but an entire career well before it had a chance to blossom and he’d stepped out of his teens.
The slightly built cousin of rugby union’s famous brotherly threesome Mark, Glen and Garry Ella was a brilliant local junior who came through the East Mt Pritchard ranks in the same team as Eric Grothe.
After making the NSW under-17s in 1977, he and Grothe were brought into the Eels’ under-23s the following season.
Grothe, on the wing, and Ella in the centres as Michael Cronin’s partner, were blooded by first grade coach Terry Fearnley a week apart in the early rounds of in 1979.
But in just his fourth match in the top grade, tragedy hit the 18-year-old Ella.
His body, all 72kg of it, collapsed under the weight of Manly’s 97kg ball of muscle Steve Knight after making a half-break at Brookvale Oval – on April 29, 1979.
Surgeon Michael Johnson’s diagnosis days later was that Ella would not play again, and would never run at anywhere near full speed again.
Rather than become devastated, Ella refused to surrender – despite setbacks few others had ever encountered.
After one of the first types of surgeries in rugby league that we now know as a knee-reconstruction, Ella suffered an infection and then nerve damage (which still affects him today) and his leg was paralysed from the knee down for weeks and needed microsurgery.
At a time his girlfriend was pregnant, the apprentice carriage-maker had to live off $23 a week in sickness benefits, he was in hospital for eight weeks and in plaster for seven months!
Yet he would still not bow to predictions he would never play league again, let alone return to first grade standard.
“It was a tough time in my life,” Ella recalled in understatement.
“My girlfriend at the time was pregnant (daughter Rachel was born days after Steve left hospital), I was on sickness benefits of $23 per week and in the first year of an apprenticeship.
“I just loved playing footy so when I first got the diagnosis that said I wouldn’t run again or play again, it was pretty devastating,
“But I just wasn’t going to give in without a fight.
“It was just down to self-motivation and self-belief. I wanted to prove the doctors wrong but to do that I knew that was down to pure hard work.”
It was 23 months from the injury before he played his next first grade match, under the second coach since he made his ’79 debut under Fearnley, none other than his NSW under-17s coach of ’77, Jack Gibson, who had that much faith in Ella he brought him straight back into first grade, against Newtown, for the opening round on March 29, 1981.
So talented was Ella that South Sydney coach Bill Anderson offered him three times more than what the Eels put before him. But he wanted to be loyal to a club that stuck by him, and wanted to represent his local club.
He is glad he did.
Months later Ella scored the try that sealed Parra’s first premiership as part of perhaps the greatest rugby league backline of the past 40 years that included Ella, Grothe, Cronin, Peter Sterling (who’d played two first grade games before Ella’s debut) and Brett Kenny who debuted, also as Cronin’s centre partner, in 1980.
Tagged the ‘Zip Zip Man’ (which has since been abbreviated to Zip by teammates) by Daily Mirror journalist Peter Frilingos, Ella could cover every position in the backline but played centre in five grand finals, winning four in 1981-83 and ’86.
Renowned for being brilliantly elusive and quick, Ella can only leave us with how great his career could have been if not for that crippling injury. He says he lost “four or five metres” in acceleration because of it!
Indeed, teammates say he was the most freakishly talented, and potentially the greatest of the Eels of the era if not for the setback of the knee injury at the start of his career, and a shoulder problem that he fought for four seasons before it ended it, in 1989 when he was still 28.
“I had shoulder surgery five years in a row and in the end, when I was playing for Wakefield in England, it popped three times in the one game and I knew I’d had enough,” he laments. He earlier had a successful season with Wigan, in between Australian seasons, in 1985-86 – a year after Kenny became a ‘God’ there.
After his last game for the Eels in 1988, Ella sat atop the Eels try-scoring lists with 92 – a mark since surpassed by Kenny (110 in 265 games) and Luke Burt (124 in 264 games).
Zip Zip was probably penalised for his versatility on the representative scene. Four of his seven State of Origin games for NSW were from the bench and he played only three Tests from 1982-85 in the era of Cronin, Kenny, Gene Miles, Steve Rogers and Mal Meninga who dominated the centre positions for Australia.
Yet he still is remembered for his freakish efforts on the 1982 Kangaroo tour when he scored four tries against Wales and seven tries in a game against Villeneuve in France.
Ella lives on the Central Coast and has had a successful career in Indigenous alcohol and drug welfare.