Alerted in February 1960 by letters of recommendation addressed to Arthur Clues, in respect of a 22-year-old Australian on a working holiday, the Headingley management offered trials to Ken Thornett and promptly signed him on a three-year contract, following a highly impressive display with the ‘A’ team.
The middle one of three remarkably talented brothers, Ken was a mere stripling compared with John and young Dick, each of whom stood 6 foot 1 inch and tipped the scales at 16 stone. Born at Waverley, Sydney, and schooled in the Rugby League game as a youngster, he sprang to prominence as a centre with Randwick R.U ., the ‘Galloping Greens’, and but for a cartilage operation might well have been chosen to accompany John on the Wallabies’ 1957 Tour of the British Isles. Nor was he any more fortunate in 1958. Playing at full-back with Rand wick, for the first time in his career, and rapidly establishing himself at State level, he was awarded the Sun-Herald prize for the ‘Best and Fairest Player of the Year’, yet was unaccountably omitted from the Australian squad to tour New Zealand.
Another season like that was more than enough. Itching feet, disenchantment with the Union game as a result of being persistently ignored by the international selectors, and realisation that his running style of fullback play was more suited to the thirteen-a-side game, prompted him to see the world and try his luck in England. Travelling overland from Naples to Ostend, and thence to London, he turned out on five occasions with Rosslyn Park 2nd XV, pending receipt of a clearance to play Rugby League, and then headed north by motor-bike, to obtain employment as a wool sorter with Joseph Dawson’s in Bradford.
Joining the Loiners in mid-March, towards the end of a depressingly unsuccessful campaign, Ken could scarcely have made a greater impact, scoring a debut try against Batley, and going on to play with such refreshing confidence and obvious enjoyment that faith was restored on the terraces with ten victories to show from the last eleven matches.
After such an auspicious start, there was understandably considerable dismay the following August when he took leave in order to watch his brother Dick compete in the Rome Olympics as a member of the Australian Water Polo team, but he was back in September as promised, in time to take up the cudgels against Hull at Headingley, and thereafter revelled in every challenge as the 1961 Championship-winning epic unfolded. And when it came to the Final crunch, there he was, at Odsal, playing the game of his life against Warrington: fielding kicks, be they high or low, with the same flawless composure; thundering upfield, to spark off numerous counter-attacks with his splay-footed gallops; and ready, all the while, to scythe down at the stocking tops any foolhardy marauder who dared to invade his patch.
The victory was historic, the euphoria intoxicating, and no wonder! To think that just fifteen months earlier he had been chugging north on his motor-bike, and here he was, with a Championship medal that every Leeds full-back over a period of sixty years would have given his eye-teeth for. Had he never worn the jersey again, Ken’s place on Headingley’s Roll of Honour would have been assured; as it was, he continued to give his all for two more seasons, honouring his contract in the spirit and to the letter, before taking his curtain call at the Wakefield Trinity match on 24th April 1963. Not that he intended being out of the country all that long!
Nor was he! Within weeks of rejoining Parramatta, with whom he had played seven games in the summer of ’62, the honours came thick and fast: three Tests against New Zealand; the 2nd Test against South Africa; and then, the biggest prize of all, a coveted place on the tour to England and France, along with his brother Dick, a 22-year-old second-rower who had ‘seen the light’ and forsaken his R.U. international status.
And what a triumphal return it proved to be! Dubbed ‘The Mayor’ by the rest of the party, on account of the generous reception accorded him wherever he went in the Leeds area, Ken played in all six Tests, scoring the opening try in the 1st at Wembley and another against France at Toulouse, thereby creating a Test record, as the first full-back to record tries against Great Britain, New Zealand, France and South Africa.
Three remarkable brothers: John, universally respected as a captain of the Wallabies; Dick, a double-international and an Olympic competitor; and Ken, a Test full-back of distinction and a Loiner by adoption, who was prepared to fly back ‘home’ to Headingley at short notice in October 1965, to play another dozen games during a Club emergency. The merits of a three-month contract were perhaps debatable; the sterling character of the man who responded to the S 0 S was never in question.