Brad Thorn delivers interview as powerful, honest and unforgettable as the player he was
Bradley Carnegie Thorn was only at Leinster for three months but, six years on, he is still talked about in reverential tones and terms. 'Thorny' came, he saw and he won a Heineken Cup to add to his ludicrous collection.
Sportsmen and women have often had a crack at different sporting codes but few have ever done so with as much success as Thorn.
He won four rugby league titles, a world club championship and two State of Origins. He found the switch from league to union tough, in his first season, but excelled as soon as he found a position that best suited him. The union haul was equally impressive:
- 2011 World Cup winner
- Bledisloe Cup 2003, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011
- Tri-Nations titles 2003, 2008 and 2010
- Grand Slam [northern hemisphere tour] 2008 and 2010
- 2012 Heineken Cup winner with Leinster
Thorn is now back living in Brisbane, where he spent his formative years after his family moved over from his native New Zealand. The 43-year-old took time out from his weekly schedule at Queensland Reds, where he is head coach, to chat to The Hard Yards about his career, success, failures, faith and what drives him in life.
Quizzed by Andy McGeady, Pat McCarry and former Leinster teammate Kevin McLaughlin, here is the full Q&A from a truly memorable interview:
A.M: You racked up a serious list of rugby union honours, but you were a league man when you were younger. How did that happen?
Even though we were born in New Zealand, and I lived there until I was nine years of age, my family - like a lot of Kiwi families - looked for better opportunities. We moved to Queensland and the only game I knew, being a Kiwi lad, was rugby. I loved rugby and loved the All Blacks. When I came to Brisbane, at school they played rugby league and my mates all loved league. So they got me to come down, after a couple of years, and play club league with them.
It was very similar to rugby, in that I got to run hard at people and smash people, so I was happy! As I grew, as a teenager, I started to excel and I had an opportunity to have a league career. I was picked up by the Brisbane Broncos in my final year of high school, as a 17-year-old, and I went from there.
P.M: What was it like playing in that era of rugby league legends such as Gorden Tallis?
That era I started playing first grade as a 19-year-old was in 1994. Gorden Tallis and I, we were second row partners. We got to play three Grand Finals and played Origin together, and tests. He's still a friend to this day. Gorden Tallis - I don't know if you know much about him over there in Ireland - could be a feisty character. We used to call him the kettle. When a kettle boils and whistle, then it's flat after that. So he would fire up and have a dust-up or something but then he'd be spent and you wouldn't see him for the rest of the game!
I played with guys like Allan Langer, who was probably the best player I ever played with across both codes. It's hard to, obviously, say that with all the different positions but it's about how he impacted the game. He pretty much won games for us. Guys like Stephen Heath, Glenn Lazarus - one of the best front rowers in league. I played against Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley and guys like that. Many great players.
It's a real tough game. A real courage game, especially back in that era. You could get bashed in a tackle; you could get bashed in a fight. Things have changed in both codes but those days it was a bit more feisty.
K.M: Winning the Heineken Cup final in 2012 with us [Leinster] was obviously your highlight but, outside of that, what was the highlight of your career?
I think it's well known how much I loved my time at Leinster and that final was just epic. Just that carnival atmosphere of the Heineken Cup. To be with that special group. The thing that I feel happened after that was that you had these teams like Toulon that was pretty much a World 15 type team. With Leinster, it was pretty much Irishmen with a few guys in. I was one of them, you know, but it was still pretty much a club team.
But obviously the World Cup [in 2011] was massive. I wouldn't necessarily say I enjoyed the World Cup but it was something I had to get done. It had been 24 years since we had won it. We had always been a great team, the All Blacks, but we weren't winning in the World Cups, when it mattered. As the most senior guy there, as a 36-year-old, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and it was great to get that result.
The French brought everything, as they can do. I've got so much respect for them and the way they fronted but, yeah, I can get on now with my life in peace, now that we won that!
And you saw what happened after [that win] in the next four to six years. The shackles came off and they've done really well. The league Grand Finals were massive as well because Super Rugby goes for about seven or eight months but, with league, I remember starting in October one year and finishing in late September the next. It was this 11-month journey and when you do that, it is a war of attrition. You play 24 rounds, 26 rounds, plus Origin, plus Test, and there are no breaks in between. To win a Grand Final at the end of that season with your guys, the Broncos, was just great times as well.
K.M: One of the things you brought to us at Leinster was this thing of training with a smile on your face. That it's enjoyable to work hard. That we knew we were working harder than the opposition. You had an impact on our culture when you were there. I remember days when we were outside and it was pissing rain, and we'd stick around for an extra 20-minutes of scrums. You were scrummaging with a smile on your face. Now that you are a coach, how are you adapting that and getting the Reds guys to enjoy their work?
I guess it's different when you are coaching. As a four-year-old, I can actually remember saying to my Dad as I watched my brother play as an Under 6 - 'Let me play. Let me play Dad!'. I wanted to play. I was just itching to and Dad said, 'You've got to wait two years until you are an Under 6 and I'll let you play'. Now I'm about two years past my professional career. I'm 43 and I last played as a 41-year-old. I'm sitting here thinking, 'Let me play. Let me play!'
It was so easy for me. I loved to play, I loved contact and, number one, I loved the camaraderie. I love physicality, competition and loved the challenge. So, for me, training in the gym I trained with a smile on my face. Why? Because I'm getting better. Because I live to train and I live to play. I love it and I thank God for those gifts, you know. With coaching, I've helped coach some gym here. I even still coach a bit of gym here, even though I'm the head coach! (Laughs)
It's just a mindset, a positive mindset, and I think part of coaching is that you know the detail and the process of what you are doing but you also have a presence. The other good coaches, they get your attention and hopefully they inspire you and they bring you along. I'd like to think there is a presence there when I talk to the boys and it's only early days but I've brought through a lot of young guys [into the senior squad], a lot of my U20s. I bring guys in who are interested in striving for excellence. My enemy is mediocrity. What I'm about is excellence. That's what we strive for. You never actually attain it, which is the best part. It's a life-long thing of trying to attain it! I get guys in who have that mindset is that way inclined and I also try to coach with a presence that encourages that.
A.M: You went from being such a force in league to almost starting from scratch in union. How hard was it to take that dive?
Brutal. It was brutal.
I've always said, if I had've known what I was getting into, I wouldn't have done it. Sometimes it's not good to know what you're getting into. It was good that I didn't know because I had a crack.
I was born in New Zealand and [rugby] union always meant a lot to me. My father, who was my role model and best mate, died when I was 19. He said to me when there were rumours of it going professional [in the mid 1990s], 'Once you've had a crack at league, maybe you could go back and take that challenge on'. There was a lot involved in me going back. It wasn't just me. There was the connection with my father.
I went back [joining Canterbury and Crusaders] and a 16-year-old could have told me more about union. It was humbling. It was frustrating; many times.
When I left league, you're right, I was at the top of my game. I'd walk in the room or I'd go out on the park and say, 'Right, I'm going to take this game by the scruff of the neck'. And then, next minute, you're in this other game where you're trying not to embarrass yourself. I'm going into a breakdown and I'm standing dead upright because I don't know how to get low. I don't know where to put my head. I feel uncomfortable getting in the air at lineouts. I can't take all the information in my head - all the things you need to know, like lineout calls, scrum moves - all this stuff is just thrown at you.
They started me at No.8, probably one of the hardest positions in the game to learn. I'm more of a natural player, so I probably would have suited 6. They put Reuben Thorne, the All Blacks captain, at No.6 when I was at the Crusaders. When I moved to lock - they tried me at 8 in the National Provincial Championship (NPC) - it became simpler for me. I had some time to play some club rugby and I improved. The big challenge in trying something different - at the top level of everything but especially sport - is that it needs to become instinctive. You need to see the situation before it develops and you need to act. When you're learning, you look at a situation and you're thinking for two seconds. 'This is where I need to be'. This or that. But the problem is, the moment has already gone; it's moved on
I had to work really hard. I would go to a park with my cousin. He would call, 300 times, different lineout calls and I would move to those positions. I would watch footage of games, I would wake up at 5am, hurting and not wanting to go to training, but I persevered and I was humbled. I know character was built within me. I was tested and my faith was massive for me. I relied on God a lot in that time and I felt he helped me to grow.
I look back on that year in rugby as one of the most important in my life. Would I like to do that again? No! (Laughs)
P.M: I'd imagine you being dropped into such a winning culture as Crusaders must not have been easy. No-one was holding your hand there. Did they give you a tough time or were a couple of lads supportive?
It's a really good question, because it is easy to forget now that there are a lot of league guys [switching to union] but I was pretty much the first guy to switch. There wasn't a great feeling between league and union back then. I don't know if it was like that, back then, in Ireland but you guys have soccer and Gaelic sport. In Australia and New Zealand, it wasn't really nice between them [the codes]. I could sense guys on the team were not keen on me being there. I had a reasonable profile, coming from league. There are guys that I would later on become great mates with, but I remember some of them being quite cold towards me when I first came across.
You talk about the culture at Crusaders but there is also an Australia and a New Zealand culture as well. In Australia. we can have a bit more banter and be a bit brash, or whatever, but there was that difference as well. Yeah, it was challenging mate. I remember going back to Brisbane after Super Rugby [in 2001] and I was just down about it. I told you about my father, who was my best friend and role model, passing away and not being around. My brother said to me, 'If you're going to be there, mate, and if you're going to be away from your lady, get paid less and have all these challenges, at least give it your best shot. Gibve it a crack. Go back and rip in. Then, if it's not to be, walk away but you go back there and, for all that is, rip in.'
I really respect my brother for that chat. It steeled my mind. Sometimes when you're hurting a bit, you need that jolt or a word. So I went back and I ripped in and things started to turn. All these years later, I'm pleased that I took that challenge on.
A.M: So you did. And I think rugby union is glad you did. Brad Thorn, thanks very much.
I appreciate your time, men. Thank you very much.
LISTEN TO THE FULL BRAD THORN INTERVIEW HERE (From 20:00):
An incredible man.