Mark Ella, courtesy of The Australian, 14 May 2011
In 1983 I captained the Wallabies against a highly strung Italian side in Rovigo, northern Italy, in what was supposed to be a nice lead-up to an arduous French tour to come. My twin brother Glen was also selected at fullback for his second Test match in a young Wallabies team and it was exciting running on the field together playing away from home.
As expected it was a difficult match on the field with the gutsy Italians refusing to give an inch and pushing us all the way, but on that day most of the trouble came from their raucous fans who were baying for blood and it soon felt like we were playing inRome’s Colosseum instead.
At one stage, Glen retrieved the football after an Italian kick in the deep at fullback and returned fire with a midfield up-and-under which he duly followed through. But what happened next surprised us all when the Italian fullback not only took the ball just as Glen was about to tackle him, but lifted his arm and elbowed Glen in the throat, causing him to collapse to the ground.
I covered at fullback only to watch from 50 metres away as Glen got off the ground to lay one of the best punches that I have ever seen, knocking his opposite number out cold.
Not only did Glen spend the next five to 10 minutes running around the field ducking and weaving from the hysterical Italian players, but over a dozen of their fans who jumped the fence as well.
Somehow as captain I managed to convince the French referee that it was a reflex action and fortunately he stayed on the field, but from then on his nickname on tour was ‘Lionel’ after Australia’s greatest indigenous boxer, Lionel Rose.
Reflecting back on those moments in the heat of battle makes me smile. But this week I feel nothing but sadness after the passing of Lionel Rose, who I first watched on a black and white TV at home as a nine-year-old.
Such was his mesmerising skill and talent on that day as he fought the Japanese boxer ‘Fighting’ Harada that I still clearly remember my family and half the neighbourhood on the mission at La Perouse all gathered around the TV watching Rose rise to greatness. I remembered how he went 15 brutal rounds and never capitulated in an amazing bout that still lingers in the memory of literally thousands of Australians who supported him throughout his boxing career.
The black fullas at Lapa, like every indigenous community aroundAustralia, were proud that Rose had become world champion because it gave us hope that anything could be achieved if the hard work was put in.
He had just becomeAustralia’s first indigenous world champion and whether he had any choice or not, the role model for many other indigenous sportsmen and sportswomen for years to come.
His victorious return toMelbournewas akin to the Queen visitingAustraliaand I can’t remember other athletes, even some of our country’s greatest and most successful Olympians being received by over 250,000 fans. And this was way back in 1968 when the treatment of indigenous Australians was less than complimentary.
He was treated like royalty, and so he should have been with a record of 42 wins and only 11 losses.
Rose broke the boundaries by becomingAustralia’s first Indigenous Australian of the Year and again proved to be an inspiration for future generations.
I had the opportunity of meeting Rose on only a few occasions during my playing days but he carried himself with dignity and I count myself lucky to have met such a warm, generous and unassuming person.
He didn’t like talking about his career, which typifies most indigenous people all overAustralia.
His success lifted the hopes of many Australians, not only indigenous, but what followed after that momentous occasion was the rise of a number of indigenous athletes including the graceful Evonne Goolagong who went on to win Wimbledon not long after.
It’s hard to state in words the influence Rose had on indigenous sportspeople. He was and still is in passing the greatest indigenous athlete of all-time, including Goolagong and Cathy Freeman.
Rose’s influence in recent years may have diminished because he fell into hard times, but the Generation-Y will no doubt be given a history lesson by parents all over the country.
It’s sad we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone.
Rose was a champion in every sense of the word.Australiaand the boxing community will sadly miss his presence, but he will be remembered as a brilliant and gifted fighter.
His fight against Harada was such a long time ago, but memories like that will never die.
Lionel Rose – Rest in Peace.