Mas­ter Switch

As a player, Brad Thorn won ev­ery­thing worth win­ning, in two codes no less. Hav­ing achieved the near-im­pos­si­ble in his segue from league to union, he now em­barks on another cross­ing – from the un­break­able man-in-the-mid­dle to nur­tur­ing side­line sage.

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY MATT CLEARY

Brad Thorn won ev­ery­thing as a foot­baller, in two codes. Can he pass that along to the Reds?

Brad Thorn left noth­ing on the train­ing pad­dock but blood-flecked scabs. He’d do ex­tras on ex­tras. In the heat, in the rain, in the side­ways sleet of Dunedin, didn’t mat­ter. Long as it hurt. If there was pain, he was gain­ing some­thing. He was evolv­ing as a player and man. Thorn didn’t so much test him­self out of his com­fort zone as run around in the nude in zones full of gravel and pointy sticks and leop­ards. And from all this flag­el­la­tion grew a le­gend: The Man Who Played For­ever. Brad Thorn is rugby’s Fa­ther Time.

He turned up to train­ing with Can­ter­bury Cru­saders early in 2001 not know­ing any­one or – im­por­tantly – how to play rugby union. But he was keen to learn, and to prove and in­gra­ti­ate him­self. At the end of a fit­ness ses­sion, he’d rip off another fit­ness ses­sion. Just him, alone, run­ning up the field, hit­ting the deck, getting up, run­ning, and re­peat. It was like there was a sergeant ma­jor in his ear. Drop! Get up! Run, you bas­tard! His new team-mates looked out from the sheds and won­dered: what the hell is the mad Mungo do­ing?

The Cru­saders of 2001 were New Zealand’s finest. They’d won three-straight Su­per Rugby ti­tles. They were full of All Blacks. And when Thorn turned up, this well-known league man from across the ditch, the lo­cals weren’t like, “Hur­rah! Brad Thorn is here!” Good as he’d been in league, as “fa­mous” as he was in flashy bloody Aussie, tac­i­turn South Is­land types weren’t en­am­oured. In­deed they were, well, a bit mean to him.

“At the time there was quite a lot of animosity be­tween the rugby codes,” says Thorn. “The guys I was play­ing with … it wasn’t rosy.”

Thorn crossed the Ru­bi­con be­cause his old man, Lind­say, a Kiwi, a watch-maker and his best mate, had planted the seed prior to his death in 1994 when Thorn was just 19. As union went pro­fes­sional, the seed re­mained dor­mant but it was al­ways there. Even when Thorn was win­ning pre­mier­ships with the Bris­bane Broncos, play­ing for Queens­land and Australia, the black jer­sey of New Zealand rugby, and all that it meant, re­mained an itch he wanted to scratch. So over the pond he went. He was 25. It was like be­ing new in the un­der-10s.

“I was clueless at rugby,” he says. “I was thrown into Su­per Rugby af­ter four weeks of train­ing. I got there in Jan­u­ary! It’s a re­ally com­pli­cated game. In league, my role was pretty straight­for­ward: run hard, hit hard. It was hum­bling, frus­trat­ing.”

He didn’t want to be there. He lived in a one-bed flat. There were times he’d wake up and not want to train. He pined for his girl­friend in Bris­bane. He’d built an idea of New Zealand from his childhood mem­o­ries. But New Zealand wasn’t how he’d imag­ined it.

The Cru­saders played him at No.8 be­cause he looked like one. But it’s a rea­son­ably tech­ni­cal po­si­tion: back of the scrum, the run­ning lines, all that. Thorn had no idea. “He ran around the field like an over-mus­cled os­trich,” re­ported a NZ news­pa­per. His team-mates con­tin­ued to think he was hope­less. They wouldn’t throw him the ball in the li­ne­out.

“I ar­rived with three goals: To see if I en­joyed rugby, to see if I was any good at it, and to see if I en­joyed liv­ing in New Zealand. And for the first six months the an­swer was ‘no’ to all of them,” Thorn told the pa­per.—

But he’d made his bed. And he per­se­vered. He saw the year out. Ended up in the sec­ond row, found so­lace in scrums. He played some club rugby, some NPC. End of the year, he was picked on po­ten­tial for the All Blacks’ spring tour, which rubbed many noses wrong. He was still rel­a­tively clueless. “Ev­ery­one else was play­ing footy, I was learn­ing on the run.”

But he was getting there.

He found a niche – the scrum: eight men; a com­mon goal. He en­joyed the tech­ni­cal­ity of it, the phys­i­cal­ity, the smarts, the power of one eight-man ma­chine. Tight-head props grew—to re­spect his bal­last – you prob­a­bly weren’t go­ing back­wards with big Brad be­hind you. And around the ground he was the same big-bod­ied bel­ter. He was a pres­ence on the park. Even feared.

“The phys­i­cal stuff was al­ways pretty good,” he says. “By the end of 2001 I reckon I was def­i­nitely start­ing to get a feel for it. I loved the scrum­mag­ing. I was getting a han­dle on li­ne­outs. There was progress.”

Thorn told NZ rugby he didn’t want to go on the tour but they picked him any­way. He’d de­cided on a sab­bat­i­cal to “sort some things out” and get mar­ried in 2002. He didn’t want to sign for two years and take some­one else’s spot. It earned him equal parts re­spect and in­credulity. All Blacks great Stu Wil­son de­scribed it as “a kick in the guts to all the blokes who had worn the black jer­sey and the thou­sands of oth­ers who had dreamed of it”. Team-mates won­dered anew: what’s the mad bas­tard do­ing? The last bloke to turn down a black jumper, Greg Den­holm in ’77, was never asked again.

Brad Thorn was. In the sum­mer of ’02-’03 he worked on be­ing a lock. To im­prove his bal­ance, Cru­saders coach Robbie Deans stood him on a fence post like the Karate Kid and threw shoes to him. He made the All Blacks squad for the ’03 World Cup. By ’05, he was back at the Broncos. In ’08, he was an All Black again. There was another World Cup, which the All Blacks fi­nally won. Thorn cried on the field with re­lief. He hadn’t en­joyed it. It was a job, not a game.

Two weeks later, Thorn was play­ing for Mu­nakata Sanix Blues in a near-empty ground in Ja­pan. So revered was the fa­mous All Blacks gi­ant that a dozen team-mates would fol­low him into the gym. There we so many that the coach asked him to cap it – the real fit­ness guy was los­ing face.

Aged 37, Thorn played for Le­in­ster in

“I WAS CLUELESS AT RUGBY … IN LEAGUE, MY ROLE WAS PRETTY STRAIGHT­FOR­WARD: RUN HARD, HIT HARD. IT WAS HUM­BLING, FRUS­TRAT­ING.”

Heineken Cup, and won the comp. Aged 38, he turned out for the High­landers, played his 100th Su­per Rugby match, and won the comp. Aged 40, he an­nounced his re­tire­ment. Aged 41, he ran out for Queens­land Coun­try in the National Rugby Com­pe­ti­tion. The Queens­land Reds thought about sign­ing him, of­fered him a coach­ing gig in­stead. He looked af­ter the un­der-20s and Queens­land Coun­try (who, yes, won the comp).

And so, af­ter 462 games and 17 ti­tles, the in­domitable Brad Thorn fi­nally stopped play­ing. And now he’s coach of the Reds. And you wonder who’ll crack first.

‡ Lind­say Thorn had had enough. His 16-year-old son Bradley was tal­ented, had played ju­nior rep footy. But he was lazy, “cool”, in­sou­ciant in that way teenagers can be. He’d drift in and out of games – a big run, then a 20-minute bludge. He wasn’t a great one for train­ing. So Lind­say sat him down and laid down a law: un­less the boy got off his arse and im­me­di­ately ran the hill track around nearby Al­bany Creek state for­est, he could for­get about footy. Lind­say would never drive him to a game again. Tough love? Too right. And out the door the boy ran, into the hills, with the old man’s metaphor­i­cal boot up his arse. And he ran and ran and ran, right into le­gend.

That Brad Thorn’s been able to play top-level league and union for nearly 23 years points to dis­ci­pline the mil­i­tary would ap­prove of. Thorn’s ridicu­lous longevity and con­sis­tency comes down to train­ing. And not just the abil­ity to lift 250kg in the gym (which they say he still can) but flex­i­bil­ity, dis­ci­pline, prepa­ra­tion. Thorn notes that 30-year-olds to­day are getting knocked around, back end of their ca­reers, and de­cid­ing to get into stretch­ing. Thorn laid a plat­form from day dot.

“I’ve al­ways trained, al­ways loved it. Al­ways en­joyed the work. I like a pos­i­tive mind­set. I’m keen to learn stuff. Not drink­ing al­co­hol for seven years was a fac­tor. But there’s not like a se­cret to it. It’s about be­ing dili­gent. You build a base of fit­ness that keeps you go­ing.”

Thorn turned up at Bris­bane Broncos, lanky, 18 years old, and got phys­i­cal with the hard men: Glenn Lazarus, Trevor Gillmeis­ter, Gavin Allen, An­drew Gee, who called him “Strongy”. But there was a party crew, too, at Bris­bane. And Thorn en­joyed that as­pect quite a bit.

Thorn ad­mit­ted that he drank, chased the ladies, did the things young guys do when they’re handed more money than any­one in their old neigh­bour­hood earned. But in the mean­time, he con­tin­ued to grow, up­wards and out­wards, mar­ry­ing size with abil­ity and the work ethic of a zealot. He was the Broncos’ rookie of the year in 1994, club­man of the year in 2007. He played 200 first grade games, won four pre­mier­ships, was a mas­sive cog in the team’s en­gine room, what they call “the mid­dle” to­day.

Thorn’s fa­ther died at the end of ’94 and Wayne Ben­nett be­came Thorn’s great­est in­flu­ence as a player and coach. Even if “there were times I wasn’t very keen on him” smiles Thorn. “But you’re a dif­fer­ent per­son at dif­fer­ent times of your life. Whether he brought out the best in me, I don’t know. But we won four grand fi­nals, had some great play­ers and re­ally good times.”

More would fol­low. Brad Thorn won ev­ery­thing.

‡ There’s a char­ac­ter in crime writer Lawrence Block’s de­tec­tive mys­ter­ies called Mick Bal­lou, an Ir­ish gangster from Hell’s Kitchen de­scribed as “rough-hewn from gran­ite”, like an Easter Is­land statue come to life.

He could be de­scrib­ing the hero of our tale, Bradley Carnegie Thorn.

Carnegie? His mum’s maiden name. Thorn mostly takes af­ter the Munro side

of the clan, though. He’s seen pho­to­graphs of these peo­ple, lined up like a footy team. They’re huge, arms akimbo. And not just the men. Aun­ties, grand­mas, all big units and mighty fore­arms. “Granma was what you’d call a hefty woman,” smiles Thorn.

In­side Sport meets the em­bod­i­ment of Bal­lou in the Reds’ ho­tel lobby be­fore the derby match with NSW Waratahs. If the late Dar­rell East­lake looked like his voice – boom­ing, “big”, hy­per-en­thused – Brad Thorn sounds like a man who’s played footy for 23 years. He’s raspy of throat and craggy-fea­tured.

Halfway through our chat, a ho­tel guest, an adult man of per­haps 35 years, meekly in­ter­rupts us to ask for a photo with his in­fant. Thorn po­litely ex­plains that he’s do­ing an in­ter­view, and that he’ll sort him out shortly. The man apol­o­gises pro­fusely. “He’s very ex­cited,” his wife ex­plains.

Per­cep­tions, stereo­types – Thorn’s bat­tled both. That he’s just a gi­ant Mungo, in a man with­out cre­ativ­ity or po­etry. Like the Rugby Australia board mem­ber who couldn’t coun­te­nance Ewen Mackenzie (a front-rower!) coach­ing the Wal­la­bies, there are some who didn’t – prob­a­bly still don’t – see Brad Thorn as a coach. How could he? goes the cyn­i­cal con­ceit. He’s nowt but a big dumb leaguie. A lock! What would he know?

Like all stereo­types, there are el­e­ments of truth in all this. Thorn did en­joy con­tact, you bet. It was his thing. One of them, any­way. But like Shrek, the man has lay­ers. Yet given his play­ing style, he’s had to bat­tle against neg­a­tive stereo­types. To con­vince peo­ple he can coach. He’s do­ing it now.

“I’ve never had to with the play­ers,” he says. “But with … oth­ers I’ve had to get past the type of player I was, I sup­pose. Peo­ple think you’d coach a cer­tain way given you played a cer­tain way. They might think I’m ‘old school’, an ad­vo­cate of the old ten-man rugby. And sure, you run hard, hit hard. That’s a given. But I want blokes to play the game, to en­joy footy, to play to their skills. That’s why we picked them.”

All of Thorn’s games with the Broncos were played un­der Wayne Ben­nett. All of his State of Ori­gin games, un­der Ben­nett. So the great, old cagey one rubbed off. Ask Thorn about what he learned as a coach from the great slit-mouthed Sven­gali, and Thorn says Ben­nett in­stilled dis­ci­pline and had blokes play­ing for each other. He says another strength of Ben­nett’s was that he got to know play­ers. He cared.

“I’m big on that, on blokes car­ing,” says Thorn. “It’s about car­ing for your mates. That’s who you’re out there with. I want blokes to care about their team-mates and what ev­ery­one’s try­ing to achieve. That’s a non-ne­go­tiable. If you don’t care, I don’t want you here.”

And have Thorn’s young Reds taken to “car­ing”? “They weren’t go­ing to be there if they weren’t,” says Thorn. “We’ve trained hard, played some re­ally good, at­tack­ing footy. I like blokes to ex­press their skills. Yes, I like blokes play­ing tight. But I love blokes play­ing ad lib.”

Like … Quade Cooper? In­side Sport didn’t ask Thorn about the ex­iled No.10 for two rea­sons. Firstly, by the time this mag­a­zine is in your hands, Cooper could be any­where. He could be in Italy. Or Brazil. And se­condly, Thorn has been asked about the re­turn of Cooper up­wards of 20 times and of­fered up noth­ing other than “we’re go­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion”. Even when pressed, there’s not even a vari­a­tion on it. You get those words in that or­der. That’s the mes­sag­ing. And that’s it. And all you’ll see of Quade is tool­ing about for Souths Mag­pies on the YouTube.

Thorn’s do­ing it his way. And we are grad­u­ally learn­ing that the Way of Thorn the coach is much like the player: di­rect, hon­est and non-ne­go­tiable.

At the Reds’ sea­son launch, Thorn opined that the Queens­land team should

be “em­bar­rassed” by some of their play in 2017. Ask Thorn to­day how his play­ers’ feel­ings copped that ap­praisal, and he smiles again. “Mate, I don’t re­ally care.”

Thorn doesn’t hold much truck with “gen­er­a­tional” mores – Gen-Ys, Mil­len­ni­als, all that. He says rugby is more pro­fes­sional than in his day and that so­cial me­dia, which he’s not a huge fan of, can pile up and grow a life of his own. But oth­er­wise “boys will be boys”.

“Play­ers are play­ers, mate. There are guys full of en­ergy, ambition. Some­times they need boundaries on stuff. But I just try to en­cour­age them. My role, in­di­vid­u­ally and as a team, is to help them reach their po­ten­tial. It’s about giv­ing guys op­por­tu­ni­ties to grow. The mea­sure of my suc­cess, I think, won’t be so much wins and losses, but how much I im­pact upon them as men.”

Yet given Thorn’s long his­tory of suc­cess, you wonder how a sus­tained stint of los­ing (al­beit while “re­build­ing”) might af­fect the man. He’s never known it, af­ter all…

“You’ve also got to re­alise where they’re at. I had my own ex­pe­ri­ences as a 19-yearold at the Broncos, be­ing pitched straight into Su­per Rugby, where I was a work-in­progress. I’ve been pretty open about what I ex­pect. We’ve got a whole heap of works-in­progress, in­di­vid­u­ally and as a club.”

Af­ter a bright start which in­cluded wins over the Brumbies, Bulls and Jaguares on the road in Buenos Aires, the young Reds fell to sec­ond-last in the Aus­tralian con­fer­ence, ahead of win­less Sun­wolves of Ja­pan. They lack op­tions off their No.10, Jono Lance, and won’t coun­te­nance the re­turn of Quade Cooper or Karmichael Hunt, who don’t ap­pear to fit with Thorn’s youth-ori­ented “cul­ture”.

And thus Reds fans can ex­pect more of the same, this year and prob­a­bly next, as Thorn brings up his un­der-20s and as­sorted young fel­lows from the Queens­land Coun­try squad which won the 2017 National Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

And you wonder, given at time of writ­ing an Aus­tralian Su­per Rugby team hasn’t beaten a Kiwi rugby team since what feels like 1972, what the All Black Thorn and his in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty can tell us.

So, Mr Thorn, once of the high­lands of Cen­tral Otago, can Australia con­sis­tently beat the All Blacks? We can, ac­cord­ing to Thorn. It’s just that ours is a work-in­progress. “In New Zealand they have a pyra­mid-sort-of sys­tem, like Australia’s cricket sys­tem, in which grade clubs feed Shield teams, which feed the Test team. But the Ki­wis have a fourth level

– a base of very strong club rugby. So ev­ery coach and player comes from a strong club com­pe­ti­tion. That feeds the NPC, which feeds the Su­per teams, and up to the All Blacks.

“That’s why the NRC is so im­por­tant for Aus­tralian rugby. The jump be­tween Su­per rugby and club rugby is mas­sive. And the Ki­wis have had that sys­tem in place for 130 years. The NRC is a bridge.”

Sure, but no one wants to watch it. “You’ll get trib­al­ism, it’ll come,” as­serts Thorn, brook­ing no ar­gu­ment. “Queens­land Coun­try, by the end of the year we had a good lit­tle fol­low­ing. Those peo­ple will be back. They’ll bring peo­ple. Just needs time.”

Fa­ther Time would know.

“PEO­PLE THINK YOU’D COACH A CER­TAIN WAY GIVEN YOU PLAYED A CER­TAIN WAY. THEY MIGHT THINK I’M ‘OLD SCHOOL’ … AND SURE, YOU RUN HARD, HIT HARD. THAT’S A GIVEN. BUT I WANT BLOKES TO PLAY THE GAME."

70

A Bronco buck [ ], Thorn dealt out the phys­i­cal stuff in Ori­gin for Queens­land.

Learn­ing union was tough sled­ding, but he was back in black in Syd­ney [ ].

Af­ter full-on grab­bing a World Cup vic­tory, Thorn ended his ca­reer at Qld Coun­try [   ].

As coach of the Reds, Thorn has laid down the law – Quade and Karmichael can tell you that.

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