“Brad Thorn is one of a kind, a special man, and a special All Black”
In 2001, less than a year into his professional rugby union career, Brad Thorn turned down the chance to tour Ireland, Scotland, and Argentina with the All Blacks. Thorn had a mixed first season with the Canterbury Crusaders and was a controversial selection. He had already had a very successful rugby league career, winning three premierships with the Brisbane Broncos along with representing Queensland and Australia. He grew up in Brisbane, having spent the first 8 years of his life in New Zealand. Thorn was unsure if he was going to remain in the union code and felt that it would be unfair and disrespectful to those who had gone before him to accept an All Black cap.
This Sunday, 10 years on, Thorn will run out at Eden Park for his 59th All Black cap in the Rugby World Cup final. Win or lose, it will bring to an end one of the most remarkable international rugby careers of the past 20 years.
Thorn took a year out in 2002 to consider his future and then decided to stick with the Crusaders. He won 12 All Black caps in 2003 and played in that year’s World Cup. After missing out on international selection in 2004 Thorn decided to return to league with the Broncos and won further representative honours with Queensland in 2005 and another NRL premiership in 2006.
He was squeezed out at the Broncos due to salary cap pressure and was surprised to get a call from Robbie Deans wondering if he was interested in a six month stint with the Crusaders. Thorn grabbed the opportunity, impressing the previously sceptic All Black coach Graham Henry during the Crusaders’ victorious Super 14 campaign, and has since been an ever-present for New Zealand.
Moving between the rugby codes doesn’t carry the same risk or stigma that it did during rugby union’s amateur era when players were ostracized and unable to return. Irish international number 8, the late Ken Goodall, stunned the Irish rugby community when he signed for Workington town in 1970. Goodall was the best number 8 in the home nations at the time and had a promising future. He lasted three years in league before his career was cut short by injury. He wasn’t welcomed back to his old club house until rugby union went professional in 1995.
Thorn’s conversion from league to union was more remarkable than those who had gone before, such as Lote Tuquiri or Jason Robinson, as he had to learn the basics of tight forward play. Robbie Deans, one of the best skills coaches in the game, initially toyed with the idea of playing him at number 8 but then settled on converting him into a powerful second row forward. One of the more remarkable stories about bringing Thorn up to speed with line out jumping showcases Deans’ creativity. Deans stood Thorn on a fence post on a farm outside Canterbury while he threw a shoe to him. Mr Miyagi, eat your heart out!
On his return to rugby union Thorn looked more assured and developed into the kind of hard scrummaging, rucking, and dynamic ball carrying lock forward that every international coach craves but rarely comes across. Henry remarked that Thorn, remarkably for a league convert, “loves to scrum” and that he was indispensible in his role scrummaging behind the tight head.
Thorn heads for Japan after Sunday’s final to finish off his career with the Fukuoka Sanix Blues. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that alongside Jonathan Davies he’s been the most successful and respected cross-code player of the past two decades. It’s also not pushing it to suggest that regardless of Sunday’s result he’ll be remembered along with Colin Meads and Gary Whetton as one of the great All Black locks.