Union and league great Brad Thorn in a prickly situation as Reds coach

Taking over in 2018 with, by his own admission, very limited coaching experience, Thorn put a broom through the playing squad. His first move as head coach was making tough calls to move on Wallabies Quade Cooper and Nick Frisby, then the captain, James Slipper, and Karmichael Hunt after off-field controversies.

Brad Thorn, playing for the All Blacks, grapples with Wallaby and Reds player Quade Cooper.Credit:PA

Thorn backed a young crop of talented players and tried to mould them in his own image: hard-working, humble and hungry.

He has since helped turn players such as Tate McDermott, Harry Wilson, Fraser McReight, Liam Wright, Hunter Paisami and Jock Campbell into Wallabies. And that’s not an exhaustive list.

He welcomed back a born-again James O’Connor to Australian rugby; a move that has never backfired.

He has taken the team from seasons where they won six games, to winning the 2021 Super Rugby AU title with just one loss in that campaign.


They continue to compete against, and more often than not dominate, the other Aussie sides – just last weekend recording their biggest Super Rugby score: 71 points in a thumping victory over the Force.

But that is where this team seems to peak. With just one win against Kiwi opposition from the past 12 games, it’s clear the Reds’ improvements under Thorn have reached their climax.

Handling errors, recurring discipline issues and second-half fade outs have become familiar themes with this Queensland side, especially when squandering winning positions against sides from across the ditch.

Those problems are not all Thorn’s fault, but as the head coach, the buck stops with him.


The Reds have hit a ceiling under Thorn’s coaching, but not one they can’t break through with a new influence.

Similarly, his coaching has hit a ceiling, but not one he can’t break through in the right environment.

Thorn himself – off contract after this season – has gone on the record to say it’s possible he could step away from coaching after this year.

That, I believe, would be a huge mistake and a significant loss for rugby in Australia.

If Thorn was to end his time at Ballymore this year – the only place he’s ever known in his coaching career – Queensland Rugby Union and Rugby Australia should work tirelessly to keep him in the system.

Petero Civoniceva and Brad Thorn wave to the crowd during a lap of honour after their last home game for the Brisbane Broncos in 2007.

Petero Civoniceva and Brad Thorn wave to the crowd during a lap of honour after their last home game for the Brisbane Broncos in 2007.Credit:Paul Harris

Thorn needs a coaching mentor. Someone to learn from and grow his coaching skill set.

He has work ethic in spades and the reverence of his players.

Speak to any player or staff member part of the travelling party which spent over a week in Christchurch for back-to-back games against the Crusaders last year, and they’ll gladly regale stories of Thorn’s spine tingling motivational tales from Maroons Origins camps. He called in favours from former Queensland teammates to send over videos for team meetings, helping create a “backs to the wall” siege mentality.


But stories of Thorn’s time with the Reds suggest he needs lessons in planning, detail and man management.

Eddie Jones is unrivalled in his strategic ability, long-term planning and detail.

Jones also loves hiring coaches with rugby league backgrounds – and recruiting players of the same sporting heritage – so seemingly Thorn ticks a pretty desirable box on Eddie’s list.

Another option, should neither Jones nor Thorn be keen on the Wallaby route, is for the Reds to use their strong commercial connection with Japanese powerhouse Panasonic to further Thorn’s coaching career. His old Crusaders coach, Robbie Deans, is at the helm there, and Thorn took his squad to the land of the rising sun to play a tour game against the Wild Knights last November.

The partnership could allow Thorn to continue his development under a well-experienced coach, in a competitive, professional and successful environment, while maintaining a connection to Australian rugby.

This is dependent on Thorn being interested in coaching beyond this year, which some say is no certainty.

But if he does depart Ballymore this year, it would be the worst thing for the game for him to be lost to Australia, or to coaching all together.

The unthinkable scenario would involve Thorn continuing his career in his native New Zealand.

Thorn has had a glaring lack of mentors in his coaching career and despite that, he has still managed to evolve.

Let’s not prune the Thorn because the situation at the Reds has become prickly. Let’s nurture it in a new garden so it can help Australia become a thorn in the side of the rest of the rugby world.

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