Leinster's Thorn has been in many sides
The Leinster lock has had a wide and varied career, with success being the one constant, writes GERRY THORNLEY, Rugby Correspondent
BRAD THORN cuts an imposing figure. There’s the hewn 6ft 5in, 116kg frame and the chiselled, granite face which you could easily envisage on a “wanted” poster from a western, complete with the reward underneath. He even has the gravelly voice to go with it.
Every rugby story is unique, but some are more unique than others and truly there’s never been one like Brad Thorn’s. He is one of only two men ever to have played rugby union for New Zealand and rugby league for Australia, and he’s also won pretty much every honour both codes of the game have to offer. And that’s only the half of it.
It’s a hell of a story and over a skinny latte in Leinster’s Riverview base recently (“I’m getting old mate; I’m trying to keep the weight down.”) he is only too happy to tell it. Sitting in shorts and training top, this modest, relatively unassuming 37-year-old politely declines the offer to call the interview to a halt almost half an hour in.
“Don’t worry. We’re just having a good chat. I’m fine, mate.”
An hour passes seamlessly. It’s as if he’s almost in mild wonder at the story himself.
That he has ended up in Ireland is also fitting. Thorn is rugby old-school. He loves the sport’s global network and he’s had a grá for Ireland ever since he played for the All Blacks in Croke Park in 2008. There was the sense of privilege that came with playing in such a historic venue, and also the silence for goalkickers.
“It wasn’t like the guy over the loudspeaker said it. It was the public – 82,000 kept themselves in line. There was the eerie silence and I just thought it was awesome, and I loved it. But they were passionate when the play was going on.”
The following Tuesday he experienced that remarkable night in Thomond Park when Munster hosted the All Blacks. Thorn watched from the replacements’ bench for 70 minutes in astonishment. “They played their hearts out. They were pretty much a second string Munster team and often there’d be guys on the ground but they’d keep getting up.”
Ten minutes from time, with Munster winning, he pretended not to hear the call “Thorny” for a joke, before joining the fray with Mils Muliaina and helping to turn the game around with a late Joe Rokocoko try.
Just as good was walking the pitch to “connect” with the crowd. “Rugby was a massive winner and I was pretty happy. I wasn’t going in the record books for losing to another Munster side.”
It was the same when he played for any All Blacks side against Ireland. He and his team-mates were always conscious of not becoming the first New Zealand team to lose to Ireland.
He describes Ireland’s three-Test tour there in June as “a juicy prospect”. Hmmm. Ireland have to win one day, he reasons, but he also admits: “When I played against Ireland I knew that we hadn’t lost to them and I took that into the game, so I wasn’t out there to lose! Though we sort of have that every game anyway. It’s the difference between us and the other teams around the world. We’re not allowed have off games. That’s our mentality.”
He enjoyed returning to Thomond as a Leinster player, and winning, and also playing at the Aviva, when Leinster beat Cardiff in the quarter-finals. He would have won his 50th cap at the venue in November last year, but for his calf tightening,
“When you get older it’s nice to have something new to experience. I feel good in those environments. It [the quarter-final] was more of a pressure game. I had a bit of a feel for the team. I’d had two or three games and I enjoyed that game probably the most, and the atmosphere. It’s just where I like being.”
Nearly every question meets with a thoughtful, considered response, and he often uses his hands to amplify his point.
He can now draw more of a comparison between Super rugby and the Heineken Cup/Pro12. “In the southern hemisphere with the Super rugby and that, the breakdown area, the refereeing can be a bit more . . .” He pauses again. “You got to get out of there pretty quick, you know what I mean? Over here, there’s a bit more traffic going on in the rucks.
“In Super rugby they want to play,” and he clicks his fingers to indicate the quicker tempo.
“In the scrummaging, it seems like there’s a lot more gamesmanship going on over here, so you’ve got to adapt. It seems like the scrums are a bit more upfront in Super rugby, but there’s a lot of technicians up here and they’ve got all sorts of different things in the playing paddock.”
Helpfully for Thorn, he has a largely Kiwi coaching staff in Joe Schmidt, forwards coach Jonno Gibbes and scrum coach Greg Feek.
He doesn’t want this to be taken the wrong way, but admits: “When I played the English or the French, there was a bit more of an intensity difference with me [than] against say the Irish or the Welsh. I knew they’d play their hearts out, but when I played the English and the French, in the northern hemisphere they were the real contest I was looking for.”
Hence, and this is his real point, he’d always assumed that Gaelic football, hurling and soccer left rugby short-changed. “But coming here to Leinster I’ve been surprised by how good the talent is.”
“I look at that Leinster backline. Far out, you know? I look at some of those guys in the Leinster pack, Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien and all these different guys. There’s some real talent out there and if they went out as a team and believed in themselves against the AB’s, you’d think there’s a good chance of doing something.”
The grá for Ireland is even stronger now, but it was the same when he arrived in Japan and made his debut for Fukuoka Sanix Blues in Niigata within a fortnight of the World Cup final.
In the last four years with the All Blacks and the Crusaders, he calculates that rugby took him away from home for 20 months, so they decided after the World Cup final that wherever rugby took him, his wife Mary Anne and their four children – Brendan (eight), Aidan (seven), David (five) and Neva (two) – would go with him.
For him and his family to experience such a new interesting culture is a life bonus as well as a financial bonus. He loves the Japanese emphasis on politeness and, of course, above all the work ethic. He can identify with that.
“A guy could be holding a street sign, I see it all the time, and he might have been doing that for 20 or 30 years, but he does that to the best of his ability. He’s proud of what he does. As far as crime [is concerned] over there, there’s not much of it. If you drop money someone will probably take it to the police station.”
“Japan has been awesome. Japan has been a privilege,” he says. Striking such quick bonds is typical of him. “I’m a pretty friendly guy so it doesn’t take me long to bond and connect with people. There’s one guy, the captain, he can’t speak English and I can’t speak Japanese but I’ve got a lot of time for him. He’s got a lot of time for me. There’s a tight bond there. It’s the same here. I got along with a whole heap of guys there and I’m going to have a soft spot for Leinster, big time, because that’s the sort of guy I am. I really enjoy that side of it.”
At Leinster, where he always appears to be first on the training paddock, Gordon D’Arcy has spoken of Thorn’s mantra of “body height” at ruck time, while Mike Ross noted that at scrum time, Thorn “compresses our spine in new and interesting ways.”
The impact has been made both ways. “We love it. We really like it. We just like the feel of it. We’ve been massively impressed with the school that the boys are at, St Mary’s, and the boys are loving it there . . . I don’t know how to explain it like. Aussies and Kiwis, we get on, despite the competition, but the Irish are like the Canadians. I just find the Irish have got a sense of humour, and I love having a laugh.”
He bemoans leaving a New Zealand winter for an Irish one again – such is rugby – and a weekend in Dungarvan reminded him of New Zealand.
“Rolling green hills, a lot of green which means a lot of rain, but not over-crowded. We enjoyed going down there.”
Thorn was supposed to be enjoying an overdue three-month break now but Greg Feek, “a good mate”, called to sound out his interest in joining Leinster.
“It’s ridiculous. I’m 37, I need to have a break,” he says with smiling, mock criticism.
So why do this to yourself? You’re 37 man! “Yeah I know, I just love my footie, I like being here, the challenge of it and being part of a Heineken Cup. Leinster are a great side, the guys I play against in Ireland, Greg Feeks, Joe Schmidt and Johnno Gibbs – the whole package.”
It’s always been this way. Born in Mosgiel outside Dunedin, the Thorn family moved to the lakes and mountains of Queenstown when he was five before his father Lindsay, a watchmaker, and his mother Robin decided to take their two boys Aaron and Brad to Australia for an extended summer when he was seven. Suitably convinced there would be more opportunities for them there, they emigrated two years later to the baking heat of Brisbane and Queensland.
Thorn had, naturally, played some mini rugby union in New Zealand before public schooling in Brisbane introduced him to League. So began the first tentative steps of a phenomenal career, featuring 432 first-class matches and astonishing durability and longevity.
RUGBY LEAGUE I (1994-2000)
“I don’t have any All Black uncles. I don’t have any breeding. My dad was 6ft 2in, but he was probably only 85, 87 kilos; just a normal built guy. The height came from my mum and my dad getting together. So mum was 5ft 11in, dad was 6ft 2in, Aaron is 6ft 8in, I’m 6ft 5in. Aaron is an accountant but you know, he’d be 110 kilos I think and I’m 116. So it’s weird, somehow I’m just made for footie.”
His dad played schools and junior rugby for Otago, and his mum was proficient at netball, but aside from the genetic good fortune he stresses there’s been plenty of hard work along the way, and you believe him.
Rookie of the year in his debut season (1994) with the Brisbane Broncos at 19 as a secondrow, within two years he had played for Queensland in the State of Origin and for the Australian Kangaroos against New Zealand and Great Britain. He won a Grand Final with the Broncos in 2000.
RUGBY UNION I (2001-2004)
It is a source of pride that Thorn is one of only two people, Bill Hardcastle the other, who has played league for Australia and union for New Zealand, but also a source of dismay for some people, particularly in Australia. It’s utterly logical from his viewpoint.
“When you come out of the womb in New Zealand in 1975, it’s the All Blacks, okay? Not these days, with PlayStation and all sorts of crap.
“Back when I came through, it’s the All Blacks if you are a male in New Zealand. I never heard of league until I went to Australia. I still loved the All Blacks but growing up in Queensland, playing under-16s, 17s and straight into 19s, my heroes were Aussie league guys.”
Having achieved all he could achieve in league, that All Blacks stuff was still in his DNA. He’d seen union turn pro and wondered. “My dad passed away when I was 19 but he said to me ‘there’s a chance you could play for the All Blacks. Maybe you could have a crack at it.’ I thought if I go back I want to do it in my prime, not at the end like some guys did.”
So he decamped to Canterbury and hated it.
If he’d known how tough it would be, he’d never have tried it. It wasn’t just coming to terms with lineouts and proper scrummaging, it was knowing no one and living in a one-bed apartment in Canterbury. He was on the phone to Mary Anne, back in Brisbane, every night.
“It tested me character-wise, big time, humility-wise, confidence-wise. It tested me as a person, a human being, because in the league I was at the top of my game. I was 25, I was going really well. Everyone says it’s similar, you’ve got the same footie and you can tackle and run the ball, but there are a lot of differences and I didn’t get to play club rugby and to build up over a couple of years. I was thrown straight in, round one, Super rugby.”
He played at number eight for the Crusaders, the Brumbies put 50 on them, and they would win only five of their 13 matches. It was not a vintage year, for the Crusaders or Thorn, who wasn’t sufficiently adept at lineouts to even be used as an option.
The way he puts it, he had to think about his game all the time. “If you have clarity and you’re used to playing you go out and you just play instinctively and that way you can bring your intensity and aggression, whereas I’m out there and it’s a ruck so I need to go down and do this or whatever. I’m like three seconds behind every play. It was a tough time, plus I realised I was a real homeboy. I always had romantic thoughts about New Zealand because it was where I was from but I was actually from Dunedin. In Christchurch I was lonely. I was in a one-bedroom flat, just started dating Mary-Anne who was in Australia teaching.”
He had also taken a massive pay cut and when mates suggested he’d be welcome back at the Broncos he was sorely tempted. But he remembered one phone call from Aaron, who said if he was prepared to put himself through all this he might as well at least stick out the year.
Playing for the Canterbury NPC team at the end of the year under Steve Hansen was a turning point.
“They put me at lock and I started to enjoy the game a bit more. The team improved and I started enjoying New Zealand a bit more. I got a feel for the surroundings and I was getting to a place where I was starting to make some strides with my rugby.”
Despite an option for a further two years on his contract, Thorn took a full year away from the game in 2002, which even involved turning down a chance to tour with the All Blacks at the end of 2001, as that would have tied him to a two-year option from 2002. Animatedly, he uses both hands and the full width of the table to divide his adult career effectively in two either side of 2002.
“When you think about it, it’s like a half-time break and so I wonder what that did for me, you know? I imagine that’s probably done heaps for me.”
Probably the reason he’s still playing at 37.
“Oh, I think I have to agree with you, yeah, because I’ve always gone hard and if you went hard every year surely you would have to break down at some stage.
“In 1998 I became a Christian and that was a massive change for me as a person and there was some personal stuff that I needed to deal with as a man and 2002 was good for me.
“I was signed as a 17-year-old at high school. I started getting paid a wage in high school. All I’d known was my footie, and ’02 showed me that there was a world outside footie. I actually needed head space.”
He and Mary Anne married and travelled to Spain, France and Italy, travelled around New Zealand properly and camped along the east coast of Australia. He did some labouring with his brother-in-law.
“As the year rolled on the flame still burned and I was hungry to get back in. I did some real good growth as a person and I could have gone back to league, but I wanted to see the fruition of that tough year. I wanted to go back to rugby and have a crack.”
Having won the Super 14 without him in ’02, the Crusaders would lose both the ’03 and ’04 finals away to Brumbies and the Blues. But in Hamilton in ’03 he and Dan Carter made their All Blacks debuts against Wales, and he played the ’03 World Cup in Australia, when the All Blacks were beaten by the hosts in the semi-final.
“I had the time of my life at the World Cup, you know. I really felt like I played some of my best footie.”
This made rejection by Graham Henry and Steven Hansen all the harder to take. “That was a pretty tough pill for me.”
One of the repercussions was a pay cut of around 50 per cent. Being honest, he admits he still preferred rugby league at the time. More importantly, Brendan was one, Aidan was on the way and his mum and Mary Anne’s parents were living in Brisbane.
“I wanted them to be part of the family stuff. I am big into family so . . .”
Years later, at the end of the 2008 tour in England, Henry would come up to him. “He said ‘I didn’t rate you Thorny. I’ve got to be honest.’ It was nice. The thing I like about Graham, he’s upfront. He said that he was wrong. It was cool. I liked his honesty. He didn’t rate me which was fair enough. I knew he didn’t rate me at the time either,” says Thorn with a knowing laugh.
RUGBY LEAGUE II (2005-07)
“It’s humbling because you’ve got to relearn stuff. You’re out of your comfort zone, big time, you know.”
At night he’d worry because of the pride he takes in his own performance levels, and cites coming to Leinster after last being seen as a World Cup winner.
“I had four months in Japan where the standard has been a lot less and when I came here there was a fair bit of anxiety, because of probably what I think people were expecting to see from me. So when you do the league it tests you character wise.”
He won another Grand Final with the Broncos and played in the State of Origin again. More boxes ticked. He even played his 200th game for the Broncos to become a life member. More boxes ticked. He was 32, he thought of wrapping up his career playing league in northern England, but he had good memories of the Crusaders except for those two lost Super 14 finals. The fire still burned. One more box to tick.
RUGBY UNION II (2008-PRESENT)
“So I went across on a Super Rugby contract only for a ridiculously small amount of money, a tiny amount of money, but sometimes you’ve got to back yourself. I didn’t stay in the safety zone and within about three or four weeks of playing, it was like three years in league hadn’t happened. I started playing almost better than I was in 2004.”
The Crusaders would beat the Waratahs in the final, by which stage word came through that Henry and co were interested in him playing for the All Blacks and his contract was extended and bumped up.
In interviews he had said he just wanted to come back to play with the Crusaders, “but like I said, there is a fire in here that wants to compete, otherwise I guess I wouldn’t still be running around.”
His return, his 13th cap, was a 21-11 win over Ireland on a miserable wet night in Wellington. “I remember Brian O’Driscoll in the interview afterwards,” and Thorn mimics the Irish captain shivering. He would win three Tri Nations and two Grand Slam tours, but there was one final box to tick, for Thorn and country alike.
“We’ve got three or four million people and that’s what we are known for around the world. If I say New Zealand what do you think of? Surely All Blacks would be one of the first things you would think of, wouldn’t you? But the World Cup had given us 24 years of frustration.”
And he accepts that they played their final in the near “flawless” semi-final against Australia, whereas by the final they were running on empty and ultimately won with a penalty from their fifth-choice outhalf, Stephen Donald. He’s played in finals with the Broncos and Crusaders and reasons that sometimes you just have to win ugly.
“It wasn’t pretty but it was a World Cup win.”
Straight after the final whistle Big Bad Brad dropped to his knees and cried. “It was an emotional release. I’ve never done that as a first class sort of player. It was pretty special. I’m not ashamed to admit, otherwise I wouldn’t bring it up.”
For a few days before he’d begun feeling very queasy. He’d picked up a virus and didn’t sleep properly for a few nights, and by the morning of the biggest game of his life felt awful. But he took an anti-hangover pill and, as with the quarter-final and semi-final, drew strength from the crowds en route to the ground.
“As a team we’d come a long way, the coaches and the senior players. We were pretty tight and it was a real big moment. You saw that in the days to come with those parades. The whole country was just so happy.
“New Zealand sometimes can be quite staunch but the whole country just let it out, just enjoyed it and celebrated it.”
Such is the life of a modern rugby professional that he and his Crusaders’ team-mates had re-joined the All Blacks the day after winning the Super 14 but this time he could enjoy the celebrations himself. Eh, a little.
Whereas Richie McCaw and co took three or four months off, the following Thursday he, Mary Anne and the kids began packing for their flight to Japan.
Now he’s among new team-mates and loving the challenges as he stands one game away from another final and another box to tick. “Yeah it’s juicy mate, but basically there’s a brick wall between us and the final in Clermont.
“Wayne Bennett was my Broncos coach and he always said the hardest thing is to get to the final, and what happens then will happen. But the hardest thing is getting there.”
He’s been playing and training without a break now for 16 months.
“Which is the most I’ve ever done in my career at my age. It’s insane.
“It’s not like I’m 22! But I’d like to be here till the end of whatever we can achieve here. Hopefully that’s deep into May.”
The fire still burns.