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.
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 grewto 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."
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.