From player clearouts to promoting youth, Brad Thorn has seen a huge change.
From player clearouts to promoting youth, Brad Thorn has seen a huge change.

‘I knew I wasn’t going to be liked’: Brad Thorn

It was the phone call that took Brad Thorn back to his own personal tragedy 25 years ago when he lost his father, Lindsay.

His Queensland Reds superstar, Jordan Petaia, 20, got the crushing news last month his dad Tielu had died of a heart attack.

In the ensuing week, Thorn was clear that after all of the turmoil during his tenure as Reds coach - the axings of Quade Cooper, Andrew Ready, Nick Frisby, James Slipper, Karmichael Hunt, the walkout by Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings, Isaac Lucas - he'd created the team he desired.

From player clearouts to promoting youth, Brad Thorn has seen a huge change
From player clearouts to promoting youth, Brad Thorn has seen a huge change

"There's been something building and building and snowballing," Thorn said.

"The week leading into the Waratahs game, we played a tough game against the Brumbies (losing 22-20), we were pretty disappointed, we came away short.

"Then on the Thursday night, Jordan's dad passed away, which was brutal.

"For me personally, having lost my own father, the guy who rang me about it was Lukhan (Salakaia-Loto), who'd lost his dad two years ago, it really hurt us, and surprisingly for myself actually, 25 years after I lost my own dad.

"And the Waratahs were fresh and zinging, Rob Penney is a good coach and they gave us a pasting (45-12).

 

"The following week we had to lick our wounds and we went out against the Rebels, and in one half they made about nine tackles and we made 140. The guys just went to war, they went to work, put their bodies on the line, showed great character (winning 19-3).

 

"It's not easy turning up after being pasted, you feel like crap, and they responded and showed that resilience.

 

"That doesn't just happen, that's a two-and-a-half year thing that happened there."

Queensland host the Super Rugby AU semi-final against the Rebels on Saturday at Suncorp Stadium, a match that could draw 20,000 as the club seeks their first grand final appearance since their only premiership in 2011.

Under 45-year-old coach Thorn, 39-year-old chief executive David Hanham, and a bunch of 20-something rising stars, the Queensland rugby revival is on.

But it could have been derailed in May when young trio Izack Rodda, Harry Hockings and Isaac Lucas refused to accept pay cuts that the rest of Australia's professional players accepted, and instead chose to sign deals overseas.

Izack Rodda has moved on to France after an ugly split with the Reds.
Izack Rodda has moved on to France after an ugly split with the Reds.

 

RODDA, HOCKINGS AND LUCAS WALK

"That was tough, especially when no one else in Rugby Australia had done that," Thorn said.

"That was against everything we're talking about. That was hard.

"Guys like Harry Hockings came down at 17-and-a-half. I rocked up six months after finishing up at Leicester, finished after 22 years of footy and now I'm down at field three coaching these young under-20s.

"Hocko was a skinny down there, four years of work goes into him and Izack Rodda. They weren't lineout callers, then Rodda's calling the lineouts at Test level, went to a World Cup and successfully called there, it's just the amount of time you have with these lads.

"And being on the other side of the game as a player, I cared about my mates and coaches. When you're on the other side as a coach, you're just so involved with these guys and you try to get them to a place, you're quite connected to them.

 

"It's more than just the money. The money's got nothing to do with it, you're pouring your heart into them.

 

"For me, because I played til I was 40, at least for 10 years I ended up mentoring a lot of guys because you're the older guy in the team and you have experience, I've always loved that.

"That's what cool about this role, you get an official name, you're the coach, but it's probably something I've been doing for a decade and I wasn't getting paid to do that then, I did it because I cared and I wanted to see young men do well."

Thorn pulled the plug on Quade Cooper’s time at the club.
Thorn pulled the plug on Quade Cooper’s time at the club.

 

QUADE, SLIPPER AND KARMICHAEL

Thorn made several controversial decisions after taking over in 2018, including the disputed call to axe Wallabies star Cooper, as well as halfback Frisby and hooker Ready soon after he took over.

"I just felt I had to do what was right for the club, if you didn't want to do that, then don't be the head coach," Thorn said.

"The year before I took over, the club had won four games, the year before that three, the year before that four, the year before that five. They were coming out of that 2011 time, they'd won 16 games in like 64 games.

"The hardest thing for me is that I didn't have a 10-year coaching career, I couldn't go to people and say 'I know what I'm doing, I've done this at this place and that place'.

"But I knew about winning, from being part of good teams with good coaches and players.

 

"Everything that I know is good, I will put in here. So I made those tough decisions, I know they're not going to be popular, but are you wanting to be popular or are you there to serve the club? You serve the club, on and off the park.

 

"If you try to make everyone happy as a leader, no one is happy.

"I'm just true to myself and what I felt was good for the club.

"You saw in the early days I had to make some changes, they were tough. I knew I wasn't going to be liked.

"Leadership is not a popularity contest, you're not going to be necessarily liked as a leader, sometimes you've got to make tougher decisions.

"They weren't easy, you wish well on those people.

Reds skipper Liam Wright has proven an inspirational leader.
Reds skipper Liam Wright has proven an inspirational leader.

"But there had to be change, and we brought this young talent through. It's like a bucket of goodness, we kept trying to pour it in.

"Liam Wright, my captain, three years ago he was on zero games, now he's on 44. Angus Scott-Young, his mate, was on zero and now he's about the same. Lukhan and Alex Mafi on 50, Taniela's on 60-something.

"They're not 19, they're 23, 24. They've been around the world three times now, some of them have played Test rugby."

Hanham, who backs Thorn's move, said: "We needed to back Brad and the decisions he wanted to make for the team and have a long-term view, which is hard because people want instant success," Hanham said.

 

"You have to back a bloke who has been part of successful teams around the globe.

 

"We had a five-year plan and we wanted to make sure the players understood there were standards we set, and if you don't support it then there's a different discussion.

"That hard line, some people were happy with, and some weren't."

Then separate drugs scandals saw Slipper and Hunt sacked.

"In hindsight it was the best decision for the club and the individuals," Hanham said.

"James Slipper is a wonderful bloke and I'm really pleased with his progress at the Brumbies, he's improved his overall game.

"Even Karmichael's decision to go to the Waratahs has been beneficial to him and them.

"So they are both better for it and we're better for it." 

Chief executive officer David Hanham.
Chief executive officer David Hanham.

 

FOUR PILLARS

Hanham revealed the Reds' revival was due to four cornerstone pillars introduced when Thorn took over; development, stability, culture and connection.

They invested in developing young talent, stopped the churn and burn of executives and coaches that had seen the Reds become a merry-go-round, built a culture of care and hard work within playing ranks, and reconnected with their wider Queensland fan base, visiting farms and communities and reintroducing the maroon jersey full-time.

Hanham cited general manager of rugby Sam Cordingley, Thorn's assistant coaches Jim McKay and Cameron Lilicrap, head of athletic performance Damian Marsh and physiotherapist Gina Nelson as crucial cogs in the Queensland machine.

"We're not looking for one year of success, we want sustained, long-term success," Hanham said.

Thorn, who won premierships for the Brisbane Broncos, Crusaders, Leinster, State of Origins for Queensland and a World Cup for the All Blacks, said: "You look at these coaches and they get one season and people say they're no good, but long-term success doesn't happen by clicking your fingers.

"You've got to build a solid foundation.

 

"There was a lot of mediocrity (when I took over at the Reds). The thing I learned over 17 years, 10 years at the Broncos and seven with the Crusaders, two successful clubs, if I just retired after that maybe I would've thought that's how it is.

 

"But after that I went and had some fun, played in Japan, went back to Otago and played there, went overseas to Ireland and England. What I learned was there's a reason why clubs are good, and a reason why clubs aren't so good. It's not by chance.

"The place needed some change. It was a big job to take on."

Thorn as an All Black was an awe-inspiring sight.
Thorn as an All Black was an awe-inspiring sight.

 

FAITH

A core factor in Thorn's approach to coaching and life is his deep Christian beliefs.

During the early tumult of his Reds' tenure, Thorn questioned his decision.

"As a Christian, I've gone: 'God, what am I doing here?' But you persevere. My strength is in God, I think I've grown in my relationship with the Lord through this time," Thorn said.

"Also, the support I've had around me with my staff, those above me, and just the enjoyment of seeing these young guys coming through.

"The real word is love, but I use care because it's a more comfortable word.

"I love my mates, I played for them, I loved the cause, and who I represented.

"You see that every week in training, the extras they do, working with each other, helping others work on drills. In the game, the last time we played the Rebels they kept putting their bodies on the line. Care is all over the place in footy.

Thorn was part of an excellent Broncos era.
Thorn was part of an excellent Broncos era.

"It's in the fabric of the game. What price will you pay? What are you willing to do for your mate?

"If you have that, everything else flows. If you care for your mate then you're going to do extras, you're going to look at video footage of what you need to improve, you're going to keep your weight down, when you're away from training you're not just going to eat everything or do silly stuff that's going to hurt the team.

"As a Christian, it's in the 10 commandments, Jesus said love the lord, love your fellow man. Humans at our best, in my opinion, is when we love - or care is the word we use - to me it's the fabric of rugby and what people put in." 

COACHING CAREER

Thorn, off contract after this season, has endured speculation about his future since he took over and took drastic action.

"I wasn't 25 or 35, now I'm 45. I've been in the game for 28 years as a player and coach, I know how things are," Thorn said.

"Joe Schmidt, my coach at Leinster, said coaches are either sacked or they're going to be sacked.

"When I get sacked I get to say, 'Hey, I'm a coach'. This is a crazy job, that's the life of a coach.

"I got asked to do this role, I wasn't applying for it, I was here doing the NRC and 20s.

 

"It was either step forward or do something else. I love excellence, I love to achieve stuff, so I stepped forward and said 'Right, I'll have a crack'.

 

"You've got to remember the landscape, Australian teams hadn't beaten Kiwi teams in 24 Super Rugby games, so I'm looking at that, I'm looking at Queensland battling away, I'm looking at all this talent I've got coming through in the NRC.

"I was invested in them, I'd been with them for a couple of years so I cared about them, and I knew they were the future."



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