Today is a sad day for the Parramatta Rugby League Club, indeed the community of Rugby League with the passing of one of the true legends of our great game, Ken Thornett.
Words will often fall short when trying to describe the influence that he had at Parramatta. A livewire on the field, always on the move, a bull terrier in defence, always a threat in attack, leaping over the sideline to keep balls in play from kicks, Thornett was often the difference between a win and a loss for any team he took the field for.
Already a star on the Rugby Union field with his brothers Richard and John before making the switch to Rugby League, Ken Thornett was always destined to be a name that people would remember. Indeed, each of the brothers made their own special mark on the Australian sporting landscape.
Joining Parramatta in 1962, his influence on the team is credited as the reason for Parramatta reaching the first grade finals for the first time in its history. Essentially he changed the team’s fortunes from a club that had only won 20 percent of its matches from 1951 to 1961, to a team that could be genuine contenders for a premiership title. During his playing career with Parramatta (in which donned the blue and gold alongside his brother, Dick) Ken would go on to captain-coach the Eels in 1965/66 before retiring in 1968. He made a return to the club in 1971 under coach Ian Walsh, helping Parramatta again rise from wooden spooners to fourth. Thornett ultimately finished his career for Parramatta in 1971, notching up 133 games, and scoring 17 tries and 6 field goals.
Inernationally, Ken played for Leeds in England where he was a part of their championship 1960-61 team, (their maiden premiership) and where he earned the nickname of “buckets” with his English team mates for the amazing feat that, during those years, he never dropped a single kick that was aimed his way. This author recalls a story told by a fan about those Leeds days: “I remember watching him with my dad, one day a kick went up and it bounced out of “buckets” hands. He threw himself forward and caught the ball mid air before it hit the ground” .
Ken Thornett also played 3 games for New South Wales and 12 test matches for Australia. It should be highlighted that during this time period, Australia was blessed with one of the most talented rosters of fullbacks in rugby league history, including legends such as Keith Barnes, Les Johns and Graeme Langlands .
A measure of Thornett’s enduring influence at Parramatta can be found in the grandstand named after him (and hopefully when the stadium is rebuilt, the name remains), and in the naming of Parramatta’s highest accolade – The Ken Thornett Medal.
A Personal Note From Sixties
I was a little too young to remember Thornett’s stint with Parramatta during the early and mid sixties, and have only fleeting memories of his 1971 season. However, what will be enduring for me is the awe with which my father speaks about the man.
I sat with Dad this afternoon to get his thoughts about Thornett the player. His answer was simple but profound. “He changed the game for fullback play.” I pressed for specifics and he added that in an era of great fullbacks, Thornett was the best that he saw. He ran with incredible power and fearlessness and had a game sense like no other.
Outside of football, Thornett was a family friend with the grandparents of Parramatta’s current coach, Brad Arthur. I’m sure that today’s news will be met with a heavy heart in the Arthur family.
You will be missed Ken Thornett, but remembered forever.
Yours in Blue and Gold,
DK Eel and Sixties.
Images courtesy of National Rugby League, Parramatta Eels, Twitter and Getty Images