IRB Hall of Fame – Induction No.63 John Edward Thornett (1935-) Sydney University FC, Northern Suburbs RFC, Hamilton Sea Point RFC (South Africa A), NSW, Australia

Personal details

– Born: 30 March, 1935 in Paddington, NSW, Australia
– Family: The oldest of three sons of Harold, an engineer with Everleigh Rail Workshops – at the time the main rail engineering depot for the NSW network, and Marjorie Thornett, a housewife. His brothers Kenneth, two years younger, and Richard, five years his junior, were accomplished rugby players. Kenneth was a remarkably talented full-back, who played for Randwick DRFC before signing for the Rugby League club Leeds in England. He eventually joined Parramatta Eels Rugby League club in Sydney and played international Rugby League for Australia at full-back. Richard was a multifarious sports talent, one of the five Australians to have represented their country in three different sports: rugby union, Rugby League and water polo (in the 1960 Olympic Games). All three brother were passionate and highly competent water polo players. John married Diane Shivnen in 1971 and they had three children Jamie Louise Hill, Toby David Thornett and Alexandra Rowe Thornett (deceased). The marriage was annulled in 1978 and the following year he married Vivienne Claire Bentley, a Batchelor of Nursing Science (BngSc) of Charles Stuart University/Bathurst. They have had two children, Michael Edward Thornett and Pia Clare Thornett. There are eight grandchildren: Jack, Harry, Charlie and Barney Hill, Indigo and Piper Thornett and Lulu and Georgia Thornett. 
– Education: Attended Clovelly Infant School from 1940-45 after which he was selected for Woollahra Primary School in an opportunity class for very bright children 1945-46. He then went to Sydney Boys’ High School, while his brother Richard attended Randwick High School, a significant factor in their subsequent rugby playing careers, and Kenneth to Paddington Junior Technical School. Subsequently he studied Engineering and Science at the Faculty of Engineering of Sydney University. He graduated with a BA in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and a BA in Science in 1957. He subsequently acquired a Master in Architectural and Building Science.
– Nickname: Thorn
– Other sports: swimming (school champion) and water polo (represented school, Bronte club and NSW from 1955-58, winning Sydney and NSW Premierships with the club, (together with his brothers), rowing (school eight) and surfing
– Hobbies: DIY, family holidays and farming

Professional career

Started with the Post Master General Department as a trainee while still at University and became a Group Engineer after graduation. He became a design engineer with Austin Anderson after which he joined Clark Bricks (Boral) where he finished as General Manager and member of the Board of BMI (Blue Metal Industries). After his move to the country to begin farming, he started a Business Enterprise Centre at Orange in NSW, which he managed for 10 years. He and wife Viv continued farming in Orange, after which the family moved to Cowra to run a bigger farm. Eventually the family retired to the south coast of NSW after Viv’s retirement from her nursing job. 

Awards and records

– Awarded Varsity Rugby Blue at Sydney University in 1953
– Voted one of the five New Zealand Rugby Almanack’s international Players of the Year for 1964. 
– Inducted into the Sports Australia Hall of Fame in 1985
– Awarded an MBE for his services to rugby union in 1966
– Awarded the Australian Sports Medal in 2000
– He features, together with brothers Kenneth and Richard, on the Mosman Wall of Fame, unveiled in 2003
– Inducted into the Australian Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005
– One of 11 legends inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame at the IRB World Rugby Conference and Exhibition in Dublin on 18 November, 2013
– The second Australian, after Nicholas Shehadie, to play 100 games for the Wallabies
– Appointed an ARU Classic Wallabies Statesman at the 2009 ceremony
– The John Thornett Cup rewards the winner of the Fifth Grade competition of Sydney University FC
– He was a vice-President of NSW Rugby Union
– Executive Vice-President of Northern Suburbs 1971-74, Vice-President 1976-80, President 1981-84
– At the time of his induction he was Patron of Northern Suburbs RFC (since 1997) and a Honorary Life Member since 1983.

Rugby career 

– Sydney Boys’ High School from 1947-51 - He played for and captained every age-group after joining, and played for and captained the First XV for two consecutive seasons, aged 15 and 16, in 1951-52, coached by Sam Cracknell. His main reason for playing was his sheer enjoyment for the game and the fact that his two brothers played alongside him.
– Made his debut for Sydney University FC in 1953 at the age of 18 and played over 70 First Grade and eight lower grade matches over five seasons from 1953-57.
– He played for SUFC in three winning University Grand Finals in 1953, 1954 and 1955.
– His first game for New South Wales was against Queensland in 1955 while still at University. He also played that year for South Harbour v North Harbour, Sydney Seconds v Newcastle and NSW v Victoria.
– Made his international debut in the Australian back-row against New Zealand (Wallaby No.410), in Wellington on 20 August, 1955 with John Solomon as captain. He played in 10 of the 13 tour matches.
– He won his first five caps while a member of Sydney University RFC. 
– By the time he joined the Wallabies for the 1958 tour of the British Isles, he was playing for Northern Suburbs RFC. 
– He played 126 First Grade matches for Northern Suburbs, who he joined after university in 1958. He ended his club career soon after he retired from international rugby in 1967. 
– He was club vice-captain in 1960-61 and captain for six years from 1962-67.
– He reached the Sydney Grand Finals five times between 1959 and 1965, winning it in 1960, 1963 (he was club captain but did not play in the final due to his international commitments) and 1964 – the last two against his former club SUFC. In 1964 Northern Suburbs won three of the four grade finals in Sydney.
– Played for the Hamilton Sea Point club in SA in 1963. While in Cape Town he shared a flat with club mate and Springbok Tiny Naude.
– A broken jaw prevented him from turning out against New Zealand in 1957.
– A bout of jaundice on the boat that ferried the Wallabies to Europe for their 1957-58 tour kept him in hospital in London for six weeks. He missed the first 14 tour matches before making his tour debut against The Combined Services at Twickenham. Two matches later he played for Australia against Wales.
– His move from flank-forward to tighthead prop by NSW selectors in 1960 has been described as controversial, especially since he had been voted one of the top five players in NSW for his season as a breakaway, for both club (Northern Suburbs) and state.  
– He played 15 tests at wing-forward, up to and including the second test against Ronnie Dawson’s Lions in June 1959.
– He made his first appearance as a second row against Fiji in Sydney in 1961. His brother Richard also made his Test debut at number eight.
– The youngest of the Thornett brothers, Richard also enjoyed a brilliant rugby union career playing at second row for Randwick DRFC, NSW and Australia (11 Tests in 1961-62 – most of which were alongside John) after which he switched codes, joining his other brother Kenneth at the Parramatta Eels Rugby League club. Richard became a dual international, adding 11 Rugby League caps to his Wallaby bundle, of which three on the same team with Kenneth on the 1963-64 Kangaroos tour. 
John played 11 matches at lock forward between 17 June, 1961 and 13 July, 1963.  
– In 1961 he moved to tighthead prop for the first test against South Africa in Johannesburg, but returned to the second row, to partner brother Richard, for the second test in Port Elizabeth, under the captaincy of Ken Catchpole.
– In 1962, Australia played five tests against New Zealand, two at home and three in New Zealand, as part of a long tour and the Bledisloe Cup series. Thornett was appointed captain for the opening test of that year’s Bledisloe Cup at Wellington on 25 August, 1962. 
– John was selected again at prop for the second test v South Africa on 10 August 1963, a position he retained until his retirement in 1967.
– Overall, he played prop in 12 test matches, nine at tighthead,  including the 1961 test v South Africa, and three (1966-67) at loosehead prop 
– He was captain for the first time in the first test against New Zealand in Wellington on 25 August 1962.
– He led the Wallabies to an 18-9 win against the visiting England in the mud at Sydney Cricket Ground.
– In 1963 he led Australia on their tour of South Africa when they shared the test series 2-2 and were considered by pundits unlucky to lose the series.
– He led the Wallabies to their 2-1 Bledisloe Cup series defeat in New Zealand in 1964, when the sensational 20-5 victory in the third test signalled the beginning of a new era in Australian test rugby. The win was conjured by an energetic performance of the pack led from the front by Thornett, who was now accepted by the New Zealand observers not only as one of the great leaders in test rugby but also as one of the best tighthead props in the world. 
– In May 1964 he was one of the 30-odd international stars invited for the 75th anniversary celebrations of the South African Rugby Board (SARB). He played tighthead prop in all three matches, for White v Greens, the SARB President’s XV v Outsiders XV and captained Dr Danie Craven’s XV v TH Pierce’s XV. 
– Thornett led Australia to their first major test series win when they defeated South Africa 2-0 in 1965.
– On the 1966-67 tour of the British Isles he caught impetigo from his opposite number and was unavailable for selection for most of the tour, missing two great wins against England and Wales, when the team was led by scrum-half Ken Catchpole.
– He retired from international rugby after the test against France on the 1967-68 tour of the British Isles and France, though he continued to play club rugby for Northern Suburbs.

Tours and tournaments 

1954 – Australian Universities tour to New Zealand
1955 – Australia tour to New Zealand (including Bledisloe Cup)
1956 – Australian Universities tour of Japan 
1957-58 – Australia tour to the British Isles and France
1958 – Australia tour of New Zealand  
1961 – Australia tour to South Africa
1962 – Australia tour to New Zealand (including Bledisloe Cup)  
1963 – Australia tour to South Africa
1964 Australia tour to New Zealand (including Bledisloe Cup  
1966/67 Australia tour of the British Isles and France

Coaching career

– He coached the Northern Suburbs First Grade from 1970-71
– After his retirement from international rugby he wrote a major manual on rugby coaching entitled This World of Rugby, which became a textbook for aspiring coaches in Australia and the UK.

Career records and highlights

– He became the 142nd Sydney University player to appear for the Waratahs and 61st Sydney University Wallaby.
– He led the Northern Suburbs to five Grand Finals. They were losing finalists in 1959 and 1965 and winners in 1960, 1963 and 1964.
– He played a total of 21 representative games for NSW. 
– Played 37 tests for Australia in a career spanning 13 years between 1955 and 1967, winning nine, losing 25 and drawing three (scoring one try) for a winning ratio 26.3 per cent.

– He went on eight tours for his country, four as captain.
– He started all 37 tests he played.
– He played in 12 Bledisloe Cup matches, losing eight, winning three and drawing one – a winning rate 26.3 per cent.
– He represented Australia in 118 matches, 37 Tests and 81 representative (tour) games.
– He played four tests against two British and Irish Lions teams in 1959 and 1966, losing all four of them.  
– The last test the Thornett brothers played together was against New Zealand in Auckland in September 1962 when they were faced in the second row by the Meads brothers, Colin and Stan – a rather unusual occurrence. 
– He captained Australia in 16 tests from 1962 until his retirement in 1967. His first test as captain in 1962 in Wellington was at the same ground where he won his first cap back in 1955.
– The test against England in 1963 was the first the Wallabies won at home in nearly 30 years. 
– In 1965 he led Australia on their tour of South Africa, when the Wallabies became the first team to defeat the Springboks in two consecutive tests in 67 years. Australia had arrived as a power to be reckoned with in world rugby.
– The test series won 2-0 by Australia against South Africa in 1965-66 was their first ever win against South Africa in a test series.
– In the second test v South Africa in 1965 he won his 34th cap to become the most capped Australian player of all time, breaking AR Miller’s record of 33.
– His record lasted until the 1966-67 tour of the British Isles and France when, with Thornett unavailable due to an infection, Miller regained the most capped player tag. 
– During his 37-test career Australia scored 263 points and conceded 473.

What he said

“The unusual shape of the rugby ball and its somewhat unpredictable bounce add a unique charm to the game, and make handling of the ball its finest skill.”

“A good footballer will normally carry the ball in both hands … Running with the ball, swaying from side to side in the hands following the natural body rhythm can easily deceive a defender.”

“Rugby union is an amateur game played by men who should always stand for the highest ideals of sportsmanship. The amateur spirit is a state of mind which shows in how you approach every match and how you go into every tackle.”

“It is a life of triumphs and failures, but with rugby standards improving all round the world that is one of the lessons this great game teaches – behave modestly and calmly in victory, for defeat may not be far away.”

“Rugby is a game in which one must continually strive for victory. Every footballer should be determined to win, but in Australia one often feels that there is such an obsession over winning that we sometimes do not give due credit to very talented opponents.”

“… It would be disastrous to the enjoyment of rugby by both players and spectators if we had to play the game in a climate in which victory was boisterously celebrated and defeat barely tolerated.”

“Rugby, played correctly, is a unique, character-building game as an outlet for energy in a materialistic world, in which financial gain and the soft life are the objectives for which people strive.”

“To survive, rugby cannot be compromised. It must stand for the highest values, for they are its real strength. The rugby field is, in a sense, a training ground for character, a field on which events of physical, mental and emotional impact are concentrated into a short space of time.”

“Above all, rugby is a hard game that should always stand for the highest ideals of sportsmanship. By ‘amateur’ I do not simply mean that rugby players should not be paid. At a time when administrators are considering compensation for loss of wages, it’s important to remember that there is more to being an amateur than the money factor. The amateur spirit is a state of mind that shows in how you approach every match, how you go into every tackle.”

What they said

Bill McLaughlin (Australia manager 1963-67): “… his admirable modesty should not be allowed to disguise his gift for tactics and for inspiring loyalty and team spirit in his players. Behind that snowy head of his is a remarkably ethical and shrewd football brain, developed no doubt by his 118 games for Australia and on his nine overseas tours.”

Profile for Sport Australia Hall of Fame: “John Thornett was adamant in his upholding of sportsmanship in the game of rugby union. Words of negativity, criticism and bitterness were not uttered when the looming figure of John Thornett was around. He believed that rugby union was a means of building character and supported the fundamental ideals of the game wherever he could.”

Paul McLean (Wallaby great and ARU President) - “The name John Thornett is synonymous with Australian pride and great leadership.”

Alan Roper (Australia coach): “… He should have been Australia’s captain years ago. There’s nothing the boys wouldn’t do for him.”

Jack Pollard (writer and historian): “In a period when Australian rules, soccer and league players maintained increased pressure for higher payment, Thornett believe steadfastly that playing rugby for no monetary reward was preferable.”

Bill McLaughlin (Australia manager 1963-67): “He is quiet by nature, but a very staunch character with the vision to see beyond Sydney football grounds and take in the overall international picture in rugby. I doubt if he has ever failed to do anything asked of him if he thought it would help rugby – and these demands have been considerable.”

Robert Maxwell Faulks (Northern Suburbs RFC historian): “It was claimed by the Sydney Morning Herald writer and ex-international Sid King in an article on 14 September, 1963 that Thornett was to rugby union what Reg Gasneir was to Rugby League, Sir Donald Bradman to cricket, Cazaley to Australian Football, John Landy and Herb Elliott to athletics and Les Darcy to boxing.”