Brad Thorn loved playing the Boks. He didn’t get a lot of joy out of putting 60 or 70 points on the second tier teams. Brad got his kicks out of going head to head, shoulder to shoulder, fist to fist with the hard boys of the veldt. There was something primal about it.
I remember after we played the Boks one year – I think it was the 19-0 victory in South Africa. I came downstairs to get a bottle of water and there was Brad. He had been really pumped for the game.
It was now 11 0’clock at night. He was pacing the corridor in his shorts. He had no top on.
He said: “Smithy, I can’t get to sleep. I’m still pumped.”
Brad doesn’t like it easy. He loves the battle. When he first came into our All Blacks environment in 2008, I was most surprised by his attention to the areas of game that pass largely unseen. The obvious things that a league player brings to union are ball carrying, off-loading, tackling.
Brad isn’t like that. With him it all starts with his scrummaging. If he could do a good job in the scrum, he was on his way. That is the last priority for some players. But Brad gets his mana from the unrewarded sacrificial jobs.
Before every scrum went down he would flick the prop in front of him on the backside to get him energised. I once said to Greg Somerville that the scrum was likely to go well that day. He just answered that he was doing everything he could to keep his back strong and straight so that Brad could exert his power.
“An iron rod,” he said, powered by Thorn.
Defensively he was incredibly quick off the ground close to the goalline. He never gave up. He would hit the deck and be straight back up to make the next tackle. The job was never done. It gave him huge mana around the team.
Brad was hugely proud of his gym work. He defended his records to the death and when he got overtaken, he kept going back until he beat you. Hosea Gear once bench pressed 185kg or something. That got Brad cracking again.
Another time there was a biceps measure-off. Who had the biggest? Someone unexpected like Stephen Donald came out on top. Brad couldn’t believe it. He went off to do bench curls and then kept coming back to be re-measured. He must have returned 15 times to have his biceps re-checked.
But don’t think he is just a hard man, gym bunny. Brad has a head for rugby. He loves the game. He has a really good knowledge of All Blacks history. He revered some of the past players. He loved talking to men like Brian Lochore. He was fascinated by Kevin Skinner, the prop and heavyweight boxer who beat up the South African front row. He held hard working league players like Petero Civoniceva in the highest esteem.
Brad had a real feel for the jersey so we put him in charge of the young All Blacks group. He would lead them and talk about the heritage and the trophies and what it all meant. He had Ma’a Nonu help him at one point and that was great for Ma’a’s development.
You don’t keep playing at 37 after so many triumphs without being your own man. I had this thing before the World Cup final where I wanted to sharpen up the outside backs’ foot speed against the tight forwards. I tried to call Brad over. He told me to piss off. He was preparing his own way. He knew what was needed. It made me laugh at the time. It wasn’t ill-discipline. Just the opposite. He was so focused.
The story that maybe defines Thorn’s values is when he turned down the All Blacks jersey. He had been selected for New Zealand, but at the time Brad wasn’t sure if he was going back to league. A lot of people would have just grabbed the jersey. Brad was never going to accept it. He had to be sure that his future was in union, that he was part of the All Blacks going forwards.
Brad Thorn set an example for a generation. He is an exceptional person.