Marcus Frederick Nicholls was born at Greytown on 13 July 1901, the son of Sidney Nicholls, a custodian, and his wife, Margaret Ann Marnell. After the family moved to Petone in 1908 he attended Petone West School and Petone District High School. He completed his education at Wellington College, where he played in the First XV from 1917 to 1919.
Mark, as he was known, made his début in first-class rugby in 1920 when, as a member of the Petone club, he played at five-eighth for Wellington against Taranaki, scoring a try, a conversion, a penalty goal and a goal from a mark. In 1921 he played for New Zealand in all three tests against South Africa, the first two at second five-eighth and the third at centre. His brother Harry ('Ginger') was the All Black halfback for the first test.
In 1922 Nicholls played the first of five games for the North Island and toured New South Wales with the All Blacks, topping the points table with 34. Ginger was also a member of the team. Mark spent a brief period in Auckland at the end of the 1922 season and played one game for that union. In the same year, on 30 August, in Petone, he married Gladys Hume. At the time of his marriage he was employed as a shipping clerk. He later worked as a clerk with New Zealand Railways.
Inexplicably, Nicholls was omitted from the New Zealand teams that played three matches against New South Wales in 1923. Ginger and another brother, Harold ('Doc'), played in this series, making the Nicholls family the first to have three brothers selected for the All Blacks.
After showing impressive form in the inter-island match of 1924, Mark Nicholls was selected for the All Blacks' tour of New South Wales, England, Ireland, Wales, France and British Columbia. One of the outstanding players of the tour, he played in all four internationals and headed the points table for the northern hemisphere matches with 109. He was named a player of the year by John Wisden's Rugby Football Almanack, which also credited him with being responsible for most of the tourists' tries, although he scored only one himself. His greatest gift was to spot weaknesses in the opposition teams and exploit them fully.
In 1925 Nicholls contributed six conversions to the All Blacks' 36–10 win over New South Wales at Auckland, and in 1926 he was again the leading scorer on the tour of Australia. After playing for the North Island at fullback he was named vice captain of the 1928 All Blacks for their South African tour. To the surprise of his many followers, Nicholls played in only 11 of the 22 official games – all but one at second five-eighth – and he was omitted from the first three test teams. It has been suggested that he and the captain, Maurice Brownlie, were at loggerheads and that the South Island members of the selection committee supported Brownlie. It was also said that Nicholls was difficult to get on with, prone to talking about his ability and to using profane language. However, a team member later claimed that Nicholls was left out of the test teams because he was not playing well enough. He was only selected for the fourth test team when another player was unable to play through injury. The All Blacks won 13–5 and Nicholls, who played at second five-eighth, scored 10 of the team's points.
On returning from South Africa, Nicholls produced a book, With the All Blacks in Springbokland, 1928, which gave a comprehensive coverage of the tour. He was unavailable for the 1929 Australian tour and was not selected for the first test against Great Britain in 1930. He was recalled for the second and third tests, but was unavailable for the fourth due to injury. Although he captained the North Island in 1931, Nicholls was not chosen for the single test against Australia that year. He retired at the end of the season.
Equally at home at first or second five-eighth, Mark Nicholls was one of the great New Zealand rugby players. He played 51 matches for his country, including 10 tests, and scored 284 points. He was a Wellington selector from 1934 to 1938, a New Zealand selector in 1936 and 1937, and on the North Island panel in 1948. He was also a competent cricketer who played at senior level.
Nicholls left New Zealand Railways in 1955 and over the following seven years managed hotels in Carterton, Te Awamutu and Motueka. From 1963 to 1968 he was the publican at the New City Hotel, Wellington. He retired to Tauranga, where he died on 10 June 1972 survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.
In addition to the three All Blacks, several other members of the Nicholls family achieved sporting prominence. Mark's father, Sid, played rugby for Wellington in 1889; another brother, Guy, was a North Auckland rugby representative; and his sister, Dulcie, won numerous New Zealand tennis titles between 1930 and 1937. Mark's son, Mark, played rugby for Wellington.