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The man at the centre of what is generally considered the first golden age of Australian rugby passed away on Friday on the NSW south coast at the age of 83 after a lengthy battle with illness.
Thornett, Norths club patron since 1997, played 37 Tests for the Wallabies in a career that spanned 12 years from his Test debut in 1955 until his final Test (against France in Paris) in 1967.
He started in all of those Tests and finished on 118 matches overall, just the second player at the time to play 100 matches for Australia behind Nicolas Shehadie.
In all he captained the Wallabies in 16 of those Tests (for six wins, nine losses and a draw) and if he played today he would surely have notched up well beyond a century of Test matches.
At the peak of his powers Thornett became known as ‘The Thorn’ – a pointed reference to the love, respect and esteem that he was held in, not unalike Sir Donald Bradman being called ‘The Don’.
The eldest of three brothers, John’s brother Ken represented Australia in rugby league and the third, Dick, was a dual international.
Thornett debuted for NSW against Queensland in 1955, going on to make his Wallabies debut later that year, as flanker against the All Blacks.
Good things were brewing for the Wallabies in 1961 and by the end of 1962 after their tour of New Zealand for three Tests they were considered to be world class outfit under the leadership of Thornett.
But the icing on the cake came on the tour of South Africa in 1963 where Thornett’s Wallabies became the first side to beat the mighty Springboks in successive Tests in 67 years.
Northern Suburbs life member and Wallaby tour team-mate in 1967 Russ Tulloch said Thornett was very much the heart and soul of life on these tours.
“It wasn’t just what he did on the field which of course was substantial,” Tulloch said.
“It was the way that he made everyone feel part of the team and that we were all working away on the one goal.
“When I first came into camp for that tour from Victoria he was one of the first blokes to come and welcome me on board.
“Thorn will be missed.”
Thornett’s rugby life began at Sydney High and he graduated from Sydney University with an honours degree in engineering.
He was immediately an important member of the students’ First XV taking out Shute Shield titles in 1953, 1954 and 1955.
When he came from Sydney High he was a centre but as his ample frame filled out he moved to the back row, the second row and eventually the front row.
Once he had finished his studies at Sydney Uni district qualifications at the time meant that Thornett along with Rod Phelps and Derry Hill moved across the bridge to Northern Suburbs in the early 1960s and help drive considerable success at the club.
They won Shute Shield titles in 1960 and 1963 and were a constant threat come finals time and played in five consecutive grand finals.
Once his playing days were over at Norths he served on their football club committee in numerous roles and was president from 1981 until 1984 when the club was fighting their way back to first division.
He was elected as a Life Member in 1983 and appointed club patron in 1997.
“He was always available for fund raising for tours or club events. Very much a man of the people and a great club man,” Tulloch added.
Thornett’s mark on the wider Sydney competition is still being acknowledged today with Sydney Uni and Norths playing off for the John Thornett Cup.
He is a member of the Sports Australia, Rugby Australian and World Rugby halls of fame and is one of 11 legends in the World Rugby list.
Thornett was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1966 for his services to rugby.
He is survived by his wife Vivienne and their children Michael and Pia as well as Jamie and Toby from his first marriage. A daughter from his first marriage Ally passed away a number of years ago.
Words are thanks to Mark Cashman
From Cashcow Media