Born winner Thorn enjoying life on the other side of the ropes
Photo: Stephen Tremain
He kept me waiting. Unintentionally of course, Brad Thorn is classier than that. But as his talented young Queensland Country side made their way across TG Millner Field to enjoy the post-match celebrations in the sheds last Saturday afternoon, their fledgling head coach was busying himself by carrying the tape bin they had just filled, all the way around to the back of the main stand to save the home groundsman a job.
The fact that it was the 42-year-old former All Black and Kangaroo – who is a World Cup, Super Rugby, Heineken Cup, NRL and State of Origin winner – doing the clearing up and not one of his young protégés, says plenty about what got this legend of both codes to the pinnacle of his profession across 22 years. Hard work, dedication and humility.
After finally hanging up the playing boots last season, where he didn’t look out of place alongside an NRC contingent that were mostly half his age, he has kicked on with his coaching career to such an extent that he was recently named as the Queensland Reds head coach for 2018. Three years on the Reds staff as a forwards coach, a year as assistant coach with Queensland Country in 2016, and one title-winning season in charge of the Reds U20’s earlier this year, had already earned Thorn the head coach role with Country for the current season, before his announcement as Nick Stiles’ replacement ahead of next season’s Super Rugby competition.
But while his beaming grin as we walk and talk affirms the continued enjoyment he is getting from the sport despite now being on the other side of the ropes, he admits that the juggling of two roles while he is still learning his craft is some logistical challenge.
“I haven’t had much of a break in two years,” he reflects. “I’m doing this at the moment, while all the other Super Rugby guys are prepping. I’m doing this, I’m doing the gym stuff at the Reds and I do skills stuff there as well, but I’ve got four kids at home and they all want a piece of me. Luckily, my wife is a champion!
“I just love footy mate. Whether it was watching my brother as a four-year-old asking Dad if I could play, or playing as a junior, or as a senior, or as a 41-year-old last year, and now as a coach. This is what I do, and the thing I like about being a head coach is just the control. When you’re the top guy you get to just pour goodness into it. Everything I know that is good, I pour into it.
“I’ll see how it goes. It’ll be interesting to look back at it all in 12 months – hopefully, I’ve still got a job! If I can get through this, hopefully I can have an impact.”
He’s doing more than simply ‘getting through it’. Before Thorn took up the Queensland Country reins they had the worst win percentage of any side in the three-year history of the NRC with just five victories in total, and were averaging 46pts per game at the wrong end of the field. The 57-31 dispatching of the Greater Sydney Rams last weekend means that with two rounds of the regular season remaining, they have already matched that tally of five wins in just six matches, conceding the fewest points in the comp in the process, and are in prime position to play finals footy for the first time.
Given his combative nature on the field, it’s no surprise to hear that defence was Thorn’s top priority when he took charge.
“We were conceding 49 points a game last year on average, and I think defence means something to them this year, it matters to them, and so it should,” he reasons. “I believe defence says a lot about who you are, and about your character. Everyone likes to attack but I’m big on defence, and for me it’s personal. I’m stingy, I like zero every game, and I guess the guys have taken that on board and it’s improved. But I’m a bit of a hard ass too and I’m never satisfied.
“You can go down the park and you can do defensive drills. You can hit a tackle pad and use all the knowledge that’s around. But it’s what you bring to it as a player, which is under your chest and in your head, your mindset. That was probably my strength as a player, and I feel that if there’s something I can contribute coaching-wise, it’s an intent and a mindset there that maybe I can get across to the players.
“It’s not necessarily that I’m some great orator or speaker or some master coach, but I’ve always enjoyed winning, and I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things over the years from being a part of some winning teams and competing hard.”
But despite his no-nonsense exterior, it is his emotional quota that possibly sets Thorn apart, and may well prove to be a key factor in his long-term success as a coach. Whether he was lining up for the Brisbane Broncos, the Crusaders, Leinster or Leicester Tigers, what he brought to the table as a clubman has been acknowledged by all who played alongside him. He was a born winner that would walk through walls for his team mates, and be the first to put an arm around them when the battle was over.
“They’re a good group of guys here and they know I care about them,” he says of his young squad. “I’m all cards in. As a player I was the same, my team mates knew I cared about them and I’d show them through my actions. I don’t get to show this group through my actions, but I think they can sense it.
“To me, it’s not just about being some coach, I actually really care about them, and they care about me and about [assistant] Paul Carozza, and about each other too. I think they really care about that cause that is Queensland Country, they’ve really taken a pride in it, and in the jersey this year. As soon as you get people caring about stuff, everything changes. It’s the fabric for everything.”
An opening round 48-40 loss to Canberra Vikings brought with it plenty of promise of better days ahead, and the ground-breaking 31-12 win over state rivals Brisbane City a week later to lift the Andy Purcell Cup for the first time, was a sign that the power balance between Queensland’s two NRC combatants may be shifting. Thorn felt that it was a pivotal line in the sand for his side.
“That game against Brisbane City was massive because we’d never beaten them before and we got hammered by the ref in that first half, nothing much was going our way. I talked to them that week about the defence, and they just went to war. Sometimes those games can be a statement, and the team says ‘This is who we are’, and once you do that you don’t go back there again. You’ve made your stand, you’ve set your standard and now you go forward.”
They haven’t lost since, racking up three half-centuries against the Sydney Rays (50-24), Melbourne Rising (54-12) and the Rams, and edging out last year’s runners up, the NSW Country Eagles, 34-31. Wing sensation Filipo Daugunu and skipper Duncan Paia’aua have crossed the chalk 18 times between them, scrumhalf James Tuttle is second on the points-scoring list, while Hamish Stewart has made the third highest number of tackles in the competition.
But for perfectionist Thorn, there are still plenty of creases to be ironed out. Overplaying their hand at times and opening the door for the Rams to make a late surge last Saturday was another example for him of how far some of these guys still have to go if they are to follow him into the ranks of Super Rugby.
“They’re such a young group and there’s so much talent there but there’s still plenty for them to work on,” he observes. “Not finding touch from a penalty or sometimes overplaying, such as one of our front-rowers trying to throw a flick pass behind his back – there’s an exuberance there and a youth there, and as you can see, we’ve got points in us. But they’ll learn from each game and it’s about that maturing process I guess. You do some of the things they do at times here in Super Rugby, you can get hurt badly.
“But we’ve got two 19-year-old locks; a 19-year-old five-eight; a 19-year-old openside flanker, and a whole heap of 20-year-olds so, they’re doing ok aren’t they! They’re playing against men, and against a lot of big guys in that Rams team, so I’m really proud of them. I understand where they’re at, and I think they’re doing pretty well. The captain, Duncan Paia’aua, I think he’s the player of the comp personally. He’s leading the way and even he’s a youngster. He’s 22 and he’s the like the old dog!”
A tough trip to hot and sweaty Lautoka to play the high-flying Fijian Drua this afternoon will go a long way towards deciding their finals fate. But with an eight-point advantage over 5th placed Perth Spirit, and with a home match against the reigning champions to come next weekend, an inaugural place in the top four seems likely.
For Thorn, it is just another couple of weeks along the learning curve for him and his players towards the ultimate goal, getting the Queensland Reds back where they belong and fighting for silverware.
“I know what it is about at this level, you cut your teeth here, and as a coach also, I’m cutting my own teeth here,” he says. “You’re trying to learn fast and then hopefully, be better prepared for Super Rugby. We do that in New Zealand with the Mitre 10 Cup, and every coach and every player comes through that system. It’s about paying your dues and learning your craft.
“I’m pleased with how it’s going now, and if we can get to that point, it would be a massive achievement just to make the finals. I haven’t really talked to them about finals or anything, it’s very much been one game at a time. But it was a record when we won back-to-back games – Queensland Country had never done that before – and now every week is a record for us!
“I’ve always been a big believer that finals footy is another competition, so we’ll see what these young boys can do and once again, it’ll be a first if they do get there. We’ve got two more games and if we make it, we’ll just approach that then. We’ll play to win and we’ll see where it takes us.”
But as much as he played a straight bat in terms of the possibility of success for this Country side, the glint in his eye as he finally headed to the sheds to join in with his player’s celebrations, left me in no doubt that anything other than lifting the NRC trophy would be deemed a failure. Because that’s who Brad Thorn is – a winner.