John Edward Thornett
- 410Wallaby Number
John Thornett was one of Australian rugby’s greatest captains. He led the Wallabies in a quite remarkable 63 matches, 16 of which were Tests. Only Nick Farr-Jones (36) and Andrew Slack (19) exceeded his Test tally in the 96 year amateur era. Thornett was also one of a trio of extraordinary brothers who provided their country with two rugby union internationals, two league internationals and a water polo Olympian.
Thornett believed that above all, rugby was an amateur game played by men who ‘should always stand for the highest standards of sportsmanship. By amateur I do not only mean that Rugby players are not paid for playing the game. There is far more in being an amateur than the money factor. The amateur spirit to me is a state of mind about how you approach a match in the field.’
Thornett started off his international career as a breakaway, moved into the second row, and finally gravitated to the front row. It was there that he gained particular acclaim, and the front three of Jon White, Peter Johnson and Thornett was heralded throughout the rugby world. Born in Sydney, Thornett was educated at Sydney Boys’ High School. After school he enrolled at the University of Sydney where he began his club rugby career as a centre.
In 1955, aged just 20, he debuted for New South Wales against Queensland and two months later found himself on tour in New Zealand and selected on the flank to play his maiden Test in Wellington. From that debut, Thornett played in 36 of the Wallabies next 43 Tests and enjoyed some of Australia’s greatest ever victories including the two away wins against South Africa in 1963, the first time the Springboks had lost back-to-back Tests all century; the 20-5 defeat of New Zealand in 1964, the largest loss at home in All Black history; and the 2-0 home series victory over South Africa in 1965.
On the 1962 tour to New Zealand, Thornett became the 49th Wallaby to captain his country in a Test. Thornett was the quiet achiever style of captain. His players followed him because they knew he had the experience, and that he was a man of sterling character and high ethics. He was rarely the most brilliant player on the team, but rather the essential cog in the machine. Men followed him into battle because he was solid, dependable, unwavering, a man of undoubted modesty and tangible principles. This is what he offered to a team, and in his case it worked.
A proud man, a born leader, Thornett was instrumental in rebuilding Australian rugby’s somewhat battered international reputation.
John Thornett played 37 Tests for Australia, 16 as captain, in a decorated 13-year international career.
Thornett won his first Test cap at flanker alongside ‘Mac’ Hughes and Brian Johnson in the 1st Test, 8-16 loss to New Zealand at Athletic Park. That same backrow started the 2nd Test however Hughes shifted to No.8 and Keith Cross came in on the side in the famous 8-3, 3rd Test victory at Eden Park.
Thornett, Cross and Hughes formed the back row for both home Tests against South Africa.
On the Fourth Wallabies tour, Thornett started four of the five Tests, against Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France.
Thornett missed the opening Tests against the Maori and New Zealand but played the final two matches of each series, all at flanker, to earn four caps for the season. Thornett later wrote: “Of all the matches I have played, one of the most memorable was the Second Test against New Zealand at Christchurch in 1958. We had left Australia described by one sportswriter as the worst team Australia had ever sent in any code. We had lost the First Test by a big score... We slogged it out with New Zealand’s forwards all through the first half and midway through the second half it was 3-3 and it suddenly dawned on us all that we had a real chance to win. This realisation, together with the fact that we were such strongly criticised underdogs, inspired us. Then Alan Morton scored his brilliant try and we were in front. From then on the forwards literally threw themselves into the rucks, really playing superbly. We came off winners against all the forecasts of the experts and I can still remember the gleeful figures jumping up and down for joy on the top deck of the stand – the Australian reserves who had not played.”
Thornett combined with Peter Fenwicke and Bob Outterside in both home Tests against the British Lions.
The Wallabies did not play any Test rugby in 1960.
Thornett paired with Rob Heming in the second row for the final two Tests of the home series against Fiji. He played all three away Tests against South Africa, the first at prop and the final two at lock alongside his brother Dick.
He missed the opening Test of the year but then partnered Dick in the middle row for the 2nd Test, 5-14 loss to the All Blacks in Brisbane and, as captain, all three away Tests in New Zealand.
Thornett partnered Jim Miller in the second row for the 18-9 victory over England in Sydney and the 1st Test, 3-14 loss to South Africa at Loftus Versfeld. He then shifted into the front row alongside Peter Johnson and Jon White for the final three Tests against the Springboks.
Thornett, Johnson and White formed the front row in all three away Tests against New Zealand.
The Thornett, Johnson, White trio started both home Tests against South Africa.
Following White’s retirement Tony Miller moved into the front row with Johnson and Thornett for the two home losses to the British Lions.
Thornett caught impetigo, a contagious skin disease, in England, and was unable to play in any of the four internationals against the Home Nations. He recovered to play in the final Test of the tour, the 0-19 loss to France in Paris.