Brad Thorn says it wasn't New Zealand's last-minute defeat by Australia last Saturday that kept him awake on the next day's flight from Hong Kong to London. True, he did look a tad ashen-faced yesterday morning but by his reckoning it was down to a combination of underperforming sleeping tablets and the breakfast-time rendezvous, not the rude end to his team's 15-match winning streak, three short of a world record. "For me, it's not the end of the world," says Thorn. "The streak was just a bonus brought by performing week to week. We get excited by each Test match. I know that sounds clichéd but that's how we feel."
You are inclined to accept this from Thorn, a colossal stalwart of the All Black pack who has been ever-present this year, including the six wins which amounted to a clean sweep in the Tri Nations. As the official handout for their Grand Slam tour puts it with rather un-Kiwi informality: "Brad Thorn is that guy: strong and hard on the field and a gentleman off it."
Nevertheless, this is an iron-willed competitor, whatever the lack of hurt on public display. An all-court second-row of the post-modern kind, he was moulded by two countries – born in New Zealand and raised from the age of eight in Australia – and two sports, rugby league and rugby union. Starting in league, his two stints from 1994 to 2000 and 2005 to 2007 earned him eight caps for the Kangaroos; in union from 2001 to 2004 and resuming in 2008 he has played 47 Tests for the All Blacks, losing only seven. Uniquely, he has won titles in the NRL championship (with the Brisbane Broncos) and the Super 14 (with the Crusaders). The last four minutes in Hong Kong, when a sequence of marginal errors by New Zealand aided Australia's resurgence from 24-19 down, were a rare reverse.
And the sequence began with Thorn racing out of the defensive line in vain to tackle Quade Cooper, the slippery eel of an Aussie playmaker. "Wayne Bennett, my Brisbane Broncos coach, always said, 'if you go for a tackle like that it's okay, as long as you make it,'" Thorn says. "I went for the play and I didn't make it, so it's really poor." Cooper charged into the New Zealand half and, successively in a blur of brilliance and blunders, Isaia Toeava missed a tackle on Kurtley Beale, the replacement All Black fly-half Stephen Donald missed a kick to touch and the baby-faced James O'Connor both scored and unwaveringly converted a try in added time. In those instants the match joined the pantheon of great sporting escape acts. The Wallabies had lost the previous 10 meetings.
"It's Test footie and the exciting thing about that is you're always learning and growing," says Thorn. "Even a 35-year-old dog like me, coming out of the line like that. Would I do it again? Maybe I would. If you and I picked over the full 80 minutes, you could see stuff all over the place that could have been different. I didn't focus on Stephen and didn't feel a great need to go to him and say 'how are you doing mate?' We had a huddle and Richie McCaw [the captain] told us to keep our chins up."
Before kick-off, the TV cameras had zoomed in on Thorn's face during the national anthems. Was that a tear rolling down his cheek at the playing of "Advance Australia Fair" and "God Defend New Zealand"? No, mate, just sweat. "I am a big sweater," Thorn says. He wears one, too, we assume, at an XXL 116kg and 1.96m. He is punishingly dynamic with ball in hand and when making a tackle. And in 13 Tests against British and Irish teams, he has won the lot. "There's another streak," Thorn says, laughing. "We really enjoy playing up here. Sometimes you hear teams coming to us in June, mumbling how they are tired. We've had some tight games up here. I've definitely got large respect for them and that makes it easier to prepare."
The analysis kicks in between now and Saturday at Twickenham, so Thorn has to think hard when asked what he knows of the English team. He picks out two men in his position, at either end of the age range. "I'll be looking out for Simon Shaw as he's a guy who's older than me, and that makes me feel good. And there's that young lock – is it Courtney?" That'll be Courtney Lawes, the 21-year-old from Northampton. "Yeah, he looks a good young talent. A real athletic player and I think that's exciting, he's probably at the start of a decade-long career. The way to play the game is make the tackle with that bit extra. If you enjoy physical contact, that's your opportunity to express it. Come off with a few bumps and bruises, and hopefully the other lot do too."
Thorn locks the right-hand side of an All-Black scrum that has been tweaked in the front row this year with Neemia Tialata jettisoned and the Franks brothers, Owen and Ben, dovetailing with the loosehead warhorse, Tony Woodcock. The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, believes they could be vulnerable. Thorn says: "I felt we were superior in the scrum against Australia. It gets annoying when people are trying more to survive. We're not negative scrummagers. England have a good scrum and they will want to scrum positively. For us that's an exciting challenge."
By dint of his return to rugby league, Thorn missed the 2007 World Cup and the most recent of the quadrennial accusations that the All Blacks are superb only in between the global tournaments. Next September and October, New Zealand will be the hosts. "I don't sense it's something that's on people's minds," Thorn says, "though it might be different if you ask someone else. For me, the World Cup is a peripheral thing, in the back of my mind. I'll be late 36, it's going to come around, it'll be a six-week thing and we'll hit it as hard as we can. And what a party it's going to be, in New Zealand. But then it's going to be over. I'm enjoying today and tomorrow and this trip. You've got to analyse and critique, I'm big into that. But when I showered after the Wallabies match I knew I'd played my heart out. Life goes on."
He likes the idea of touring, although as a family man with four children the thought of the old-style 20 or 30 weeks away is too much. Last year here Thorn enjoyed the West End version of Les Miserables – "I love seeing people performing, doing their job and at their best" – and he hopes to take in The Lion King this week. If he goes by the London Underground he will see a note on the Tube map that seems somehow apt to Bradley Carnegie Thorn and his always earnestly striving All Blacks: "Improvement works may affect your journey, particularly at weekends."
Brad Thorn factfile
Born: 3 February 1975, Mosgiel, New Zealand. Position: Lock
* Thorn began his career in Australian rugby league with the Brisbane Broncos, winning three league titles. Three call-ups to the Australian national side were to follow, before he moved back home and switched codes to play for the Crusaders in 2001.
* Made his debut for his native country in June 2003. He has represented the All Blacks in 47 Tests since.
* Returned to play rugby league for the Broncos in 2005 but moved back to the Crusaders in 2008, helping them win the Super 14 title. He thus became the first player to win Super 14 and NRL titles.
Brad Thorn was speaking to The Independent on behalf of adidas - official partner of the All Blacks. For an opportunity to meet the All Blacks, head along to the adidas signing session at the RFU Store at Twickenham Stadium between 11.30am and 12.30pm this Friday (5th November).Reuse content