Brad Thorn interview: The New Zealand trailblazer happy to be a Leicester Tiger
Former All Black forward, now 39, has pitched up at Leicester at tailend of a colourful career that’s taken him from Dunedin to Leinster via Japan. But, he tells Chris Hewett, his determination to impress has not been dimmed by the air miles
The first moment Brad Thorn clapped eyes on Richard Cockerill, then a bullet-headed England hooker with a master’s degree in general bolshiness, was back in the autumn of 1997. “I was a young guy playing rugby league in Australia at that point and the All Blacks were at Twickenham,” he recalled. “Here was this bloke Cockerill, standing up to the haka and causing a bit of a fuss.
“When people ask me whether I’m an Aussie or a New Zealander, I tell them it depends on the sport. If we’re talking union I’m definitely a Kiwi, so I can’t say he gave me a good vibe at the time.”
Spool forward the best part of two decades and bygones are bygones, to the extent that the East Midlander is now the South Islander’s boss at Leicester Tigers.
Not that the manager-employee relationship is of the traditional variety. After negotiating his short-term move to Welford Road in the modern way – “I spoke with Richard for 45 minutes on Skype and I found I liked him,” Thorn reported – he arrived on these shores at the back end of last week.
“I haven’t seen much of him,” Cockerill said. “He’s been busy house-hunting and school-hunting and doing all the family stuff. Anyway, I’m too frightened to tell him to come training.”
If Cockerill is just a little in awe of his new recruit, it is not simply because Thorn has hands the size of two small English counties and forearms like logs. The really alarming thing about the New Zealander (and occasional Australian) is his CV.
Thorn is unique in the annals of rugby. Born in Mosgiel, which would be a satellite of Dunedin if Dunedin was big enough to have a satellite, he grew up in Queensland and lived the rugby league dream, making exactly 200 senior appearances for the Brisbane Broncos in two separate shifts and winning full international honours with the Kangaroos. Following which he recrossed the Tasman and declared himself available for the All Blacks, who promptly selected him 60 times in the second row.
He has won the World Cup with New Zealand, the Super Rugby title with the Christchurch-based Crusaders and the Heineken Cup with Leinster – a trailblazing achievement since matched by the Springbok forwards Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw – and fully intends, at the not inconsiderable age of 39, to add this season’s Premiership crown to the list.
He is not much interested in the pay packet, although he sure as hell won’t be playing for free. Maybe he has already earned more than he will ever need. Maybe his Christian faith tells him there is more to life than money. Whatever the reason, he is deadly serious about “being here to serve” and cannot countenance selling Leicester short.
“I don’t want to be a burden, an embarrassment,” he said. “I’m too proud for that. I’m not interested in being some old guy who’s come over here just to help out as best he can: I’m here to win something, because I’ve always loved that challenge, the feeling of chasing stuff. It would hurt me not to perform.
“I want to be liked and you do that by giving more than you’re asked to give. To serve is my ethos – and also, I’m passionate about people. Whenever I’ve left somewhere, I’ve always felt that I’d developed a really good bond. That’s what I want from this experience. That’s what interests me.”
All of which explains why he is so grumpy – “filthy” is the word he uses, in the Antipodean way – about being injured (he is still recovering from surgery on a biceps injury and is unlikely to feature much before the end of the month). “This is the first injury I’ve picked up in 20 years,” he said, “and I feel a bit let down by my body because I thought I had an agreement with it that it wouldn’t break. There again, I guess I’ve had a good trot.”
The way Thorn tells it, he was a “naturally lazy kid” and stayed that way deep into his teens. “It was my dad who stepped in, when I was 16,” he said. “He told me, ‘I’ve had enough of this, you’re not doing anything, get yourself out there and go for a run.’
“So I went running in this forest near the house and something happened to me there. From that point on, all I wanted to do was get stronger and fitter. It’s why I’ve lasted so long, I guess. I just have this attitude.”
Even so, there comes a time in a hard game like rugby when the very strongest, fittest, most accomplished practitioners feel enough is enough. The obvious moment in Thorn’s case would have been in October 2011, after he had helped the All Blacks reclaim the world title they had last won almost a quarter of a century earlier. The deed had been done on home soil in Auckland and the sense of relief was close to overwhelming. Thorn, then 36, would surely have been forgiven for cashing in his chips.
Instead, he agreed terms with the Japanese club Fukuoka Sanix Blues and moved to Munakata, towards the southern tip of the country.
“When the World Cup was done and dealt with, I wanted to spend more time with my family, but I still felt I wanted to play on,” he explained. “So that’s where the move to Japan came in. During those four or five years with the All Blacks, I’d been away from home for big chunks of time. Once that part of my life was over, I said, ‘Wherever I go from now, my family go too.’ It was the first time I’d put them first.
“Quite quickly, I had a call from Clermont Auvergne. I knocked them back. It hurt like hell to do it, but until that point everything had been about me and I felt it was important to let my family dictate for once, especially as we were being looked after pretty well where we were.
“But it got me thinking and I said to my wife, ‘Is this really how it ends? Here in Japan, playing crap footy?’ When Leinster got in touch with me, I felt my whole body come alive again.”
Thorn spent only a few weeks in Dublin, but he treasured the experience. “To go over there and play with someone like Brian O’Driscoll… that was cool,” he remarked in a tone suggesting that career tight forwards – even the most lavishly garlanded – recognise back-line greatness when they see it and hold it in reverence.
“I knew he was a good player when I went there, of course I did. But there are things you don’t realise about someone, don’t understand, until you’re on the field alongside them.
“Ironically, our Heineken Cup semi-final was against Clermont in Bordeaux, and it was a war. O’Driscoll made the first tackle of the game, on Aurélien Rougerie. Now, Rougerie is a big bloke and there was nothing technically accomplished about the hit. Basically, it was a face tackle. It struck me there and then how much ticker this guy possessed. I learnt something about the quality of another human being, and that interested me.
“That short spell with Leinster proved that if you approach things the right way, you can create the bond I was talking about in next to no time. I had three months there and walked away knowing that we’d achieved something special.
“Here at Leicester, I have nine months to do something similar. The challenge appeals to me and I’ll give it all I have. As I say, I don’t want to be a burden.”
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