Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Reds coach BRAD THORN talks about transforming his team, bumping into Eben Etzebeth at bible study and how the Springboks can return to being a world rugby powerhouse.
Sport24 asked: Since taking the Reds helm how have you adapted to the role?
Brad Thorn: It was a lot to take on initially, with it being my first head coaching role in Super Rugby. I previously coached Queensland Country in the National Rugby Championship in Australia and mentored the Reds under-20 team. When I was appointed, the Queensland Rugby Union outlined that they required a catalyst for change in culture, discipline and standards. We have set high standards and want to achieve stuff. I’m not really into drama and we have moved on from the Quade Cooper topic months ago (The 70-Test cap Wallaby still has two years to run on his Reds contract, but was told late last year by Thorn that he was surplus to requirements). Respect to the guy, but we’ve gone in a different direction. Jono Lance and Hamish Stewart are our flyhalf options along with Teti Tela. In terms of Karmichael Hunt (who copped a four-match suspension and an AU$10 000 fine for his second drug-related offence) it’s a tough one for me to comment on because they (the powers that be) are dealing with that situation. It’s pretty unfortunate what happened with him. However, going into the season, I said that I wanted to see something different from the team (the Reds only won four games in 2017) and I believe we are seeing that now with the class of 2018. I feel really positive about our season ahead because the boys have responded well. In our last match against the Stormers, the guys really played for each other and the jersey. We didn’t get the result against the Stormers but, after travelling around the world and doing a detour, I’m proud of the team’s effort. They showed so much heart and never gave up. The key is to take it game for game and not get ahead of ourselves in spite of a good start to the season (the Reds have a 60% win rate after five matches). I haven’t been head coach of this club for five years where I have these big plans in mind. We are just quietly chipping away, taking on one challenge at a time and we’ll see where we end up. I believe in actions speaking louder than words and, if you have actions, I feel people will respect your words. It’s really about backing it up and actually doing what you are saying.
Sport24 asked: Is the player drain a point of concern for Australia’s rugby depth?
Brad Thorn: The player exodus may be a concern for Australian rugby, but I see it as an opportunity for young players to stake their claim. Young talent is emerging, which is exciting, and teams in general are younger across the board. Seasoned players get to a stage where they want to experience something different and I don’t hold that against them. I enjoyed my time in Europe - I played for Leinster and Leicester - and before then I had a stint in Japan. I admittedly left it late, as I was 37 when I headed to the Far East post-Rugby World Cup 2011. Winning the World Cup stands out as the highlight of my playing career because we hadn’t won it in 24 years. I was the senior guy in the team and there was plenty of pressure involved. I signed a contract with Japanese club Sanix Blues to experience something different. I have always pushed myself outside of my comfort zone; just like I did when I transitioned from NRL to rugby union. It was very humbling because I struggled in the beginning to adapt, but I persevered. Playing overseas is not only financially lucrative, but it offers players an opportunity to expand their horizons as people. I feel like we’ve got all the young guys that just want to play for Queensland at the moment, which is a real positive for Australian rugby. At some stage, when it gets to the point where they feel they have had their fill within Australian and Super Rugby, I’m sure they’ll take the chance to spread their wings and play abroad.
Sport24 asked: Do you ever see yourself joining the Wallabies coaching group?
Brad Thorn: I can’t see myself working on the Wallabies coaching set-up at the moment. I’m just happing living and coaching in Queensland and am already working my butt off. I’m a father of four children - aged 8 to 14 - and back in my home town of Brisbane. I’m appreciating coaching the Reds, but my wife and children are important to me and I don’t want to be away from home for too long. In terms of coaching the Wallabies, you would have to be good enough to get the call and that would only be years down the track if it were to happen for me. When you join the coaching staff of an international team the fact of the matter is that it’s a real commitment in terms of time and travel. I did that for 22 years as a player, so I’m just enjoying being back in Queensland and going on the occasional overseas expedition (Thorn mostly recently toured Argentina and South Africa) is enough for me at this stage. (When departing Argentina, the Reds were refused permission to board the flight to Johannesburg as they hadn’t had their yellow fever shots. They had to fly to London to board a flight to take them to South Africa which then added a further day to their travel schedule).
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the current state of South African rugby?
Brad Thorn: I was born in New Zealand and, when growing up there and in Australia, I considered the Springboks our main opposition. During the 1970s and ‘80s, the Boks were the natural sporting enemy. As a player we wanted to play them and they wanted to play us. I don’t know what it’s like at the moment from a player perspective - I last played Test footie in 2011 - but it seems the landscape has changed. However, I will be keeping on an eye on South Africa’s progress over the next few years because Rassie Erasmus is a very clever guy and SA Rugby got him back from Munster for a reason. South African rugby is blessed with really good athletes and, when you get a quality coach like Rassie involved, the Springboks can go back to being a powerhouse in world rugby. When it comes to South Africa’s Super Rugby teams, the Bulls are much different to how I remember when I faced them as a player. John Mitchell has brought in something new and I actually really like what he is doing. They are still a big, strong team with a good set-piece, but they are now moving the ball around and will become a hard team to beat. In terms of the Stormers, who we faced on Saturday, they are a strong side. They boast strike power in their backs and a good forward pack. The game went right down to the wire and it almost caught me by surprise. The Stormers played some good football and it was a great effort from us to be within range at the end. The Sharks have been battling a bit this season, but the Lions have been South African front-runners over the last three years and are an exceptional football team despite being beaten by the Jaguares in their last game.
Sport24 asked: Does Eben Etzebeth remind you of yourself in your playing days?
Brad Thorn: Mate, if I had a tan and some flowing locks then I would say that he does! He is a better looking dude than I am. But on a more serious note, I like watching guys like Eben play the oval-shaped game. I first met Eben when he travelled to play in Brisbane and we actually attended bible study together - we are both men of strong faith. Having seen him at close quarters, he’s certainly a big, strong specimen and boasts a real impressive physique. And, when he crosses the four white lines, he’s a very powerful athlete. He’s abrasive and brings a physical edge to the game. Physicality is something I have always enjoyed. It’s a contact sport we are playing and that has to be coupled with a competitive mindset. I don’t know if it’s similar to how I played the game, but I’m a fan of that playing style. I enjoyed longevity in the game as I took good care of my body by training flexibility and placing a strong emphasis on recovery. I played 10 seasons in the NRL and earned 59 All Black caps. Eben is only 26 and has already played 67 Tests for South Africa. The effort I put in to look after my body was significant and, if Eben does the same, he’ll have a lengthy career for club and country.
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