Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison, also known as Tom or Tamati Erihana, was captain of New Zealand's first official rugby team when it toured Australia in 1893. This was not his first taste of international rugby. He was a member of the New Zealand Natives football team, a professional side, which toured Great Britain and Australia in 1888-9. The Natives' tour was a test of endurance. They played 107 matches in 54 weeks, 16 of which were spent travelling. Ellison finished the tour as the team's second-highest points scorer with 113 points, including 43 tries.
Ellison was born at Otakou on the Otago Peninsula, probably in 1867. His mother, Nani Weller (Hana Wera), was the only child of the whaler Edward Weller, who had established the Otakou whaling station in 1831, and Nikuru. His father, Raniera Taheke Ellison, was the son of Thomas Ellison and Te Ikairaua (Te Ikaraua) of Ngati Moehau, a hapu of Te Ati Awa. Raniera had come south in 1862 in search of gold and made an important discovery at Maori Point on the Shotover River. He and his two companions were said to have taken at least 300 ounces (8.5 kg) in one day. In 1882 Raniera became involved with the exiled Parihaka leaders Te Whiti and Tohu. He provided food for their followers who were imprisoned in Dunedin. He made many trips to Parihaka and provided financial assistance in rebuilding the settlement. Tom was to inherit his father's concern with Maori grievances, although it was on the rugby field that he made his name.
His rugby career began in 1882 when he won a scholarship to that most famous of Maori schools, Te Aute. He began as a forward before moving to the wing. When he moved to Wellington he played half-back for the Poneke club and established a reputation as an innovative player. At Poneke he developed the wing-forward position aimed at blocking interference with passing from the base of the scrum. The position, which was quickly adopted by Wellington and then throughout New Zealand, set this country apart from its international rivals. It was superseded by the eight-man scrum in 1932. In 1902 Ellison published The art of rugby football, one of the game's first coaching manuals.
Before the 1893 tour Ellison proposed to the first annual general meeting of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union that the team's uniform be a black jersey with silver fern monogram, black cap and stockings and white shorts. With a switch to black shorts in 1901 this became the now famous All Black uniform. Ellison was also an early advocate of players being paid the equivalent of their normal wages while on tour representing their country. This was not accepted by the union in 1893. During the tour of New South Wales and Queensland, Ellison played in seven of the 11 matches and scored 23 points. In his whole career he played 117 matches (68 of them first-class games) and scored 160 points, including 51 tries.
Off the field Tom Ellison became an interpreter in the Native Land Court in 1886. He had a particular interest in Ngai Tahu land claims. He failed on three occasions to get elected to Parliament as the member for Southern Maori. From 1891 he worked as a solicitor. In 1902, while working for the Wellington law firm Brandon, Hislop and Johnston, he became one of the first Maori to be admitted to the Bar.
In March 1899 Ellison married Ethel May Howell in Wellington. They were to have three children, two of whom died in infancy. Ellison was a highly visible figure in Wellington – he was one of the first residents to own a motor car, which he used to commute from his home at Eastbourne to his city office.
Tom Ellison became ill in September 1904. He was hospitalised at Porirua Lunatic Asylum, and died there on 2 October. He was to have been buried at Karori, but his body was intercepted at Porirua railway station by Maori representing his parents. With the agreement of his wife and the Public Trustee he was taken south and buried at Otakou.