Brad Thorn: An unconventional path

At the age of 36, All Black enforcer Brad Thorn is showing no signs of slowing down and is looking forward to the next chapter of an unconventional career that has taken in both rugby codes
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Had Robbie Deans not been so insistent, All Black lock Brad Thorn might have made it to Europe a little bit earlier than New Zealand's current autumn tour.

For it was the current Wallaby boss, in his previous life as the head of the Crusaders, who reintroduced Thorn to rugby union via New Zealand.

But for the Deans' intervention, Thorn would almost certainly have come straight to the Northern Hemisphere after he had concluded his rugby league career in Australia at the end of 2007.

This is instead of winding up on the path he ultimately took, settling back into life in Super rugby, where he had taken his formative steps as a union player in 2001.

It was to the good fortune of the Crusaders, and ironically Deans' current coaching rivals at the All Blacks, that Australia's first foreign-born coach was so persuasive.

Not only did Deans convince Thorn to give Super rugby another shot, he also twisted the New Zealand Rugby Union's arm to let him try.

This was after the organisation's recruitment 'experts' had originally deemed the former Australian Kangaroo rugby league representative, who turns 34 in February, a poor investment.

Deans knew better than they did.

Banking on the additional value a mobile 17 stone ball-carrying forward would offer in the more open game expected under the Experimental Law Variations being introduced to Super rugby, Deans also counted on Thorn's competitive desire working in favour of the move.

He knew the ultra professional would not be looking for a soft option.

Not only had Thorn missed out on a Super rugby winner's medal in his three previous seasons with the Crusaders, he also dared to dream of an unlikely All Black recall after four years.

So he would return well motivated.

Deans got it right on both counts.

It took just four competitive matches, by which time the Crusaders had swept through South Africa unbeaten - humiliating the previous year's champions the Bulls 54-19 at their own den, for Thorn to prove his coaches' judgement spot on.

By then, he had re-established himself as a formidable obstacle in the Crusaders second row as the six-time champions locked in on another title.

In doing so, the 2003 All Black also recaptured the attention of Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, the pair who had ultimately terminated his first foray into the 15-man code in 2004, when they had omitted him from the national side.

In their case, it only needed nine weeks of matches to be convinced that Thorn was worthy of notice again - with the NZRU approaching at that point to upgrade his contact, by activating the until then dormant All Black component of the financial deal.

This did force Thorn into a rapid career reappraisal for the second time in six months, as Europe was again calling.

Clubs in Wales, France and Italy had the big man on their radar, but the desire to complete unfinished business as an All Black - after he experienced 12 Tests the first time around in 2003 - saw Thorn put his European aspirations on hold.

That decision was understandable.

The All Black jersey had always held a strong allure for Thorn, even though he spent most of his youth in Brisbane after his family relocated from Mosgiel (outside of Dunedin) where he was born, while he was young.

He might have largely grown up as an Australian, but the dream of one day playing for the All Blacks went with him, and remained, even after his career took off in rugby league.

It was the jersey, and not the size of the contract, that brought Thorn back to New Zealand in 2001.

At that juncture, Thorn had the world at his feet as a three-time Premiership-winner, and the Broncos were desperate to retain his service - throwing a lot more money at him than the incentive-based contract New Zealand rugby was prepared to offer.

If the move surprised observers on the Australian side of the Tasman, New Zealanders were in for a shock too when, on being selected for the All Black tour of Ireland and Scotland at the end of his first season in rugby, Thorn promptly turned the honour down.

It appeared illogical at the time, given that he was on the cusp of achieving what he had returned to New Zealand to do, but the response was a snapshot of the Thorn values.

Being undecided, at that point, as to whether he wanted to continue his odyssey in rugby union, Thorn didn't want to dishonour the jersey by accepting it, while also denying the opportunity to someone else. So he nobly opted out of the All Blacks.

After sitting out competitive sport the following year in order to mull over his future, Thorn returned to rugby union reinvigorated in 2003, excelling for the Crusaders to again win an All Black place.

This time, he accepted the honour, making his debut on the same evening as a 22-year-old Daniel Carter.

The pair were part of an All Black side co-coached by Deans that whacked a Welsh outfit prepared by Hansen, 55-3 in Hamilton.

From his initial selection, Thorn didn't miss another Test during his maiden All Black season, finishing the year with 12 caps to his name.

He has also been a first choice selection four years on, having added eight further appearances prior to New Zealand's autumn tour.

Such is the level of the Thorn 'standing' during his second coming as an All Black, the seasoned professional has even found himself being used in an off-field mentoring role, having offered advice and being publicly type-cast as a role model for Jimmy Cowan, after the errant halfback twice fell foul of the law in alcohol-related police incidents.

Having "been there" when he was younger, openly admitting to having had his share of "wild days", Thorn no longer drinks, and has found his equilibrium as a family man, and through his church involvement.

Importantly though, and unlike some other notable All Blacks of recent vintages, Thorn has never sought to impose either his abstinence or his Christian beliefs onto team-mates.

But the year hasn't all been plain sailing.

Thorn arrived back in Christchurch having featured in two losing Super rugby finals with the Crusaders.

He subsequently joked to team-mates that he'd be "suicidal" if he lost a third, but then didn't help the cause by being sin-binned in the decider against the Waratahs, when he reacted to provocation by punching Dan Vickerman.

The Crusaders overcame his indiscretion, which also saw a try rubbed out, to prevail 20-12.

Thorn was named in the All Blacks the next day only to find himself in hot water again a month later after unceremoniously up-ending Springbok skipper John Smit off the ball, during the season's opening Tri-Nations Test in Wellington.

The injury Smit sustained ruled him out for the rest of the competition. Thorn was yellow carded, but had the censure added to by the judiciary, who handed down a one-game suspension - the first he had been saddled with during his time in either code.

Describing the incidents as "brain snaps", Thorn vowed to keep his emotions in check moving forward, and has been as good as his word, without having to compromise the physical intimidation he brings to his game.

While Thorn lacks the outright athleticism of some top-flight locks, his physical hardness and unrelenting attitude have more than made up for that, adding steel to the All Black pack while significantly reinforcing the scrum.

He is making the most of his second life but Thorn's age prevents him offering the All Blacks a long-term solution.

As such, autumn in Europe is a great opportunity to showcase his wares to clubs who might be potential suitors sooner rather than later.

Although Thorn is contracted by New Zealand until the end of next year, he has the ability to leave early - after the 2009 Super 14 - should his services no longer be required by Henry.

While he freely describes his rebirth in international rugby as "crazy", Thorn still hopes to sample European life with his wife Mary Ann, and three young boys, prior to finally terminating what has surely been the most remarkable journey made by any cross-code convert.

Even after next year, Thorn still believes he has two years left in him. Such is the extent of his off-field work ethic, and the impact his physical prowess has made on it since he returned to the game, you would struggle to find many who have opposed the bruising forward this season, who would doubt Thorn's ability to keep playing beyond his 36th birthday.

It was with a view to prolonging his competitive career, while re-experiencing a more truly international game, that led Thorn to finishing with league last year.

Thorn had played in three National Rugby League Grand finals, as well as featuring for Australia in internationals, and Queensland in the famous State of Origin series, during his initial rugby league career.

He then added to his representative honours board, after returning to Australian league in 2005, by claiming a fourth title from his fourth Grand Final appearance with the Broncos.

By 2007, however, his success notwithstanding, Thorn figured it was unlikely that his body could stand up to the weekly bashing over the 26 weeks of the regular Australian rugby league season for too many more years.

Rugby offered a viable alternative, a potential lifestyle adventure, the prospect of playing for a bit longer and the chance to once again live his boyhood dream.

Nobody can say he hasn't done that!

This story was sourced from International Rugby News