Chris Thorman has led an incredibly eventful Rugby League career and it was my pleasure to talk to him about it in 2008 for Rugby League World, while he was at Huddersfield.
Chris Thorman has had a more interesting career than most.
Taking up Rugby League as a young teenager in the north-east, he moved to Sheffield Eagles before their bizarre merger with Huddersfield. He’s experienced relegation and promotion, he’s had a season in London, then one in the NRL with Parramatta and he’s played for a young England team which nearly turned over the Australian Test team. He’s played under both Smiths – Brian and Tony – and he’s captained a team in a Challenge Cup final.
He’s still only 27.
The first question to ask is obvious. How did a Geordie teenager end up playing Rugby League in the pre-Thunder days?
“As a kid growing up I was a keen sportsman, pretty much involved in every sports team,” he said. “At the age of nine or ten, a note came around my school in Wallsend to see if anyone was interested in playing Rugby League.
“So I turned up and had a go with one of my brothers and thoroughly enjoyed it. Immediately, I felt it was the game for me.
“My parents probably enjoyed it even more because it was an energy-consuming game and I was a lot quieter at home after a session of rugby.
“At first it was just a hobby and my parents became involved in my junior club, the Newcastle Eagles, but the more I played and trained, I realised I was pretty good and I realised there might be some opportunities for me in the game.
“We played in the north-east league but then we got accepted into the Yorkshire leagues and that was a big stepping-stone for me. Suddenly, I was playing sides from Leeds and Wakefield with scouts watching and I ended up getting picked for Yorkshire Under-14s and 15s. I played in the Yorkshire League so I qualified.
“I was then selected to go to the National School of Excellence which was at Lancaster University. It was the top 40 kids for each age-group and I was chosen two years in a row. There were a lot of scouts there and Leeds and Castleford were interested in me. John Kear was the national coaching co-ordinator and he was at Sheffield at the time.
“There was an Academy side in the north-east called the Gateshead Mets. That was in the days before Gateshead Thunder but I was too young to play for them. So there were no real options in the north-east and I had aspirations for bigger things. I wanted to sign for a Super League club and I signed for Sheffield Eagles despite an offer from Leeds where I thought my opportunities might be limited. I was almost full-time immediately at Sheffield and I really benefited from the quality of coaching there.
“I made the first-team squad really quickly and made my debut at 16 in a pre-season friendly against Castleford even though I knew I was too young to be playing Super League competitively.
“I was at the club, in the Alliance team, when the Eagles won the Challenge Cup in 1998. We all travelled down to Wembley and stayed in the team hotel. The whole weekend was fantastic and it was an unbelievable achievement for the club.
“I made my competitive first-team debut in 1999 and went on to play 18 Super League games that year. I always remember playing against Bradford because they were so much bigger than anyone else and it was pretty intimidating for me, as a teenager, to be playing against them but I still used to enjoy playing against them and coming up against Robbie and Henry Paul.”
At the end of the season, it was announced that Huddersfield and Sheffield were to merge. If that sounded ludicrous, the Hull-Gateshead merger trumped it but, nonetheless, it signalled the end of top-flight Rugby League in the steel city, just a year and a half after they had won that Challenge Cup final against Wigan. The new team was entitled Huddersfield-Sheffield Giants and Thorman was a regular, even finishing the first year as the team’s top tackler but the team still finished bottom of the league in 2000 and 2001, leading to their relegation to the Northern Ford Premiership.
“It was a bit awkward because the fans at Sheffield didn’t want it to happen but I originally thought that it would only improve the side because they’d have two Super League squads to choose from,” remembers Thorman.
“It could have been handled differently by the people behind the scenes and Sheffield got a bit of a tough deal from it which was unfortunate for a side who had recently won the Challenge Cup. As well as that, there was the Sheffield coach [Kear] and more Sheffield players used in the merged. It was tough on the people from Sheffield. If it had been handled differently then maybe the people of Sheffield would have got behind it.
“They got a really raw deal. There were barely any games at the Don Valley but they should have been split 50-50. That way we’d have got twice as many fans watching us and more money would have been generated, helping the club sign better quality players and invest in junior development. The whole south Yorkshire catchment area was effectively ignored.
“I’d just been picked for the Great Britain Academy side so I was confident that I’d get a contract with the new club. We signed Gene Ngamu and Gavin Clinch but I still knew I’d get opportunities and I played a few games for them but it wasn’t a happy time at the club for many people and we finished bottom in 2000 and 2001 and were eventually relegated.
“Relegation wasn’t a bad thing for us in the end. It gave us a clean slate and by then Tony Smith had come in.”
Under Smith’s leadership, the Giants (now having dropped Sheffield from their name) came straight back into Super League. They won 26 NFP games out of 27, with Thorman scoring 17 tries in 23 games, including one in the Grand Final win over Leigh. But having helped them win promotion, Thorman was off to the Capital to play for the London Broncos.
“It was hard leaving the Giants after helping them get back into Super League but the deal had been done and it was something that I had to do. So I went down and found it to be a great club, very family orientated and the players were very close-knit.
“We had some great players like Jimmy Dymock, Billy Peden and Steele Retchless who I learned a lot from. They were great blokes to socialise with as well.
“I knew they would always be competitive but in terms of making that ‘breakthrough’ that people talk about – getting five-figure crowds and consistently making the play-offs – I wasn’t so sure about that. They had some very loyal fans but that core was only a couple of thousand and it was always a constant struggle to increase that number, although I think they’re getting there slowly but surely now. It just must be so difficult down there. They’re playing some good stuff now though under Brian McDermott – someone that I’ve worked with before and got massive respect for – and they’re one of the most consistent sides in Super League.”
Thorman won representative selection for Yorkshire in 2003 in the last year of the ill-fated War of the Roses matches. Having been beaten narrowly in 2001 and 2002, Yorkshire gained spectacular revenge at Odsal, winning 56-6 with Thorman named man of the match after registering a try and eight goals in a dominant stand-off display.
“I had a good season that year and thoroughly enjoyed that game. That was really good to be a part of and I got into the Great Britain squad. I remember the first Great Britain get together and meeting the likes of Andy Farrell, Paul Sculthorpe, Gary Connolly and Kris Radlinski. I couldn’t believe I was in the same squad as these guys.
“At the end of 2003, I played for England against Australia at Brentford and we only lost 26-22. It was a really good game and I remember playing with Martin Gleeson, who I’d played with at Huddersfield. We played really well that day and it’s certainly a good memory for me. The Aussies had a good side out with guys like Darren Lockyer, Willie Mason, Craig Gower and Craig Fitzgibbon in there.”
By then, Thorman had agreed to join Parramatta Eels in the NRL, becoming one of the few Englishmen who have made such a bold move.
“I’d had a successful season in 2003 but was off contract. I was in negotiations with the Broncos and a few other clubs but I’d decided to leave and go to Hull. I was set to sign for them but I got a call from Tony Smith [brother of Parramatta coach Brian] asking if I’d like to play in the NRL for the Eels. I was gobsmacked because it was something I’d always wanted to do.
“When my manager negotiated with Super League clubs, it tended to be about the money and getting the best deal but as soon as Parra came on the scene, the money wasn’t relevant. I didn’t care about it, I just wanted to go. Later that day, I was on the Broncos team bus, on our way to Widnes, when Brian Smith. Maybe I should have played hard to get but I told him straight away that I wanted to go! I was sitting next to Jimmy Dymock, an ex-Parra player who knew Brian very well and he told me all about them and what a great club they were.
“I was on decent money there but when I take into account the exchange rate, I lost money by going over there compared to what I’d have got by staying in England but I wasn’t bothered.
“It took a long time to get my work Visa through and it ended up disrupting my preparations for the NRL season. I was training with Huddersfield but couldn’t wait to get over to Australia because the longer it went on, the tougher it was going to be for me to break into the first team. By the time I’d got over, I’d missed six or eight weeks of pre-season and the chance to acclimatise to the weather and the systems that Parra had. It dragged on for too long.
“But once I got over, the professionalism of the club was amazing and I can only compare it to what I would expect from a Premier League football club in terms of the structures they had and the amount of money they could spend on every facet of the club.
“Not having a proper pre-season puts you at a big disadvantage, especially going over there. The weather was a huge factor too. At times, it was 35 or 40 degrees and I didn’t realise what an effect it would have on me in training. Parra looked after me really well, though, especially early on. If they thought I’d had enough, they would put me in the shade and bring me drink after drink! They have strength in depth over there and they don’t have to rush people into the side so they weren’t forcing me through. As long as I was willing to put the hard work in, they were always going to help me.
“I initially went over with my girlfriend but she had to go back to London, to university, after a couple of weeks so I stayed with Shane Muspratt. The club owned a number of units in Parramatta and I lived with Shane for half a season before my girlfriend moved over for the second half of the season. Everything was easy in that respect because my contract took care of my bills and my rent. All I had to pay for was my ‘phone bill. They had a lot of staff specifically employed to look after players’ wellbeing and the welfare of the boys. That was fantastic and I was well looked after.
“I used to get on well with Matty Petersen, who played for America and Wade McKinnon who’s at the Warriors now. I got on well with Daniel Wagon too and Nathan Hindmarsh but I realised I had to stand up to Mick Vella at first. He was the dominant figure in the dressing-room and standing up to him was part of showing you were tough enough to exist out there I suppose.
“Nathan was an incredible player. He was a freak and the best player I’ve played with by a mile. I can appreciate what Andrew Johns did in the game because we played in the same position but Nathan was something else. To play in the same team as him and see what he does first hand was a real eye-opener. He’s miraculous. He’s sheer guts, determination and perseverance. I can’t speak highly enough of him. I think Jamie Peacock is up there now, though in terms of how they play. They’re the two best players in the game.
“I loved Sydney but Parramatta was a little bit dingy for want of a nicer word. I used to get into the city as often as possible and used the ferries around Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. I did a lot of sightseeing and there was plenty of hustle and bustle with lots to do as well.
“I wasn’t picked in the World Sevens at the start of the season because I hadn’t trained enough but then we travelled up to the Central Coast and into Queensland for pre-season games and that was my first taste of first grade. We played against Cronulla and the New Zealand Warriors and there were about 30 of us on the tour with everybody getting a taste of the action.
“The club had Adam Dykes, Michael Witt and John Morris in the halves with Tim Smith on the fringes so there was a lot of competition for places and I started the season in Premier League [reserve grade]. The standard of that competition was unbelievable, with players who had played State of Origin in there. I remember playing Newtown Jets and playing against blokes I’d seen on TV from back in England. Guys can still make a decent living in their Premier League competition and I dare say a few of those sides could have given Super League teams a run for the money.
“The standards were also impressively high throughout the whole junior set-up as well and there was huge competition for places so if I was going to play first grade, I had to earn it.
“I played a bit of hooker in the Premier League, enjoying some good games there. I’ve always been happy to play anywhere, if needed, and I ended up making my NRL debut against the North Queensland Cowboys at hooker. I was happy to play anywhere but I ended up moving to stand-off which was great.
“I went back into the halves because of some injuries and had a decent run of games playing about another ten. Once I got in I pretty much stayed in there. I remember playing away at the Warriors and in Melbourne, in terrible weather but because they were English conditions, I played pretty well, scoring in both games. I also scored a good try against Cronulla at Shark Park on a really balmy evening.
“One of my favourite memories was playing against the Roosters at Sydney Football Stadium. We couldn’t make the play-offs but I played opposite Brad Fittler which is every boy’s dream. I’d have been about ten when he made his debut and it was an honour to play against him because he’s one of the greats. He smashed me in that game! I caught the ball and I could sense that he was coming and he got me.
“I also went on the Footy Show, on Channel Nine, and they did a sketch with me playing darts – the typical Englishman – with a handkerchief on my head!
“Their attitude to British Rugby League could be a bit frustrating though because they don’t follow the Super League. But their opinions might be changing now because players like Trent Barrett, Shaun Berrigan and Matt King are coming over when they’ve got so much good rugby left in them. It was also an eye-opener to see Rugby League get so much newspaper coverage, sometimes even on the front page when Willie Mason was up to no good! It’s comparable to Premier League football over here.
“But I started to get calls from teams back home wanting to know if I was staying at Parra. I had to think about my girlfriend – now my wife – and there were a number of other variables to consider, like some unfinished business in Super League. I had another year’s option at Parra and Brian wanted me to stay but I felt that a year had been long enough. It had been a great time in my life but I couldn’t really put my finger on why I didn’t stay longer. A year out of the country was enough for me.
“I think Brian was a bit surprised and I don’t think he agreed with it. He thought I should have stayed but you have to be your own man and make decisions for yourself. I think I made the right decision.”
Being one of the few Englishmen to experience the NRL, Thorman feels well qualified to compare the two domestic competitions.
“The NRL was ahead at the time – more intense – but the only real difference is the strength in depth now. If both the Super League and the NRL both had their best 17s fit and ready to go, then there’d be nothing in it at all and that goes for Great Britain v Australia as well. I do think that the skill levels, the fitness and the strength levels are very much on a par but the only thing I can criticise the Super League for is not having the strength in depth. But getting rid of relegation and promotion is one of the best things that has happened to our game for a long time and it will really help our development.
“The NRL is all about completion rates and dominating field position. It’s high pressure Rugby League all the time and I learned that doing the small things, the things that aren’t noticed by fans, are so important and that improved me as a player.”
Thorman had a choice of four Super League clubs when he decided to leave the NRL, two of them he’d played for before.
“Hull were interested in me again having made me that offer before I joined Parra. So were Bradford, London and Huddersfield. But I chose Huddersfield because I was familiar with the set-up and I knew they’d improved.
“It was a very different club to the one I’d left – Jon Sharp had kicked on from what Tony had done and that’s why I went back. I got some good offers from other clubs but I felt the Giants were going places under Jon Sharp, who is pretty much the hardest working bloke I know, and they’d picked up players like Brad Drew and Mick de Vere. They had a squad stronger than I’d seen before.
“I’d already played for two new clubs in two years so joining a club with some familiarity was a big bonus. I knew I’d settle in straightaway.
“I hadn’t really wanted to leave Huddersfield in the first place because we’d all worked so hard to get back into Super League but I had to go because I’d signed a contract with London, even though they’d loaned me back to Huddersfield at first. I had unfinished business and wanted to go back and play Super League for them. We’ve made the Challenge Cup final and the play-offs but we’ve still got a lot to offer, as have I.
“The Challenge Cup year of 2006 was fantastic. The semi-final at Odsal against Leeds is one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in and Leeds were never in the game. Then there’s the final. I was captain and to lead them out at Twickenham was very special but the final was a bit of a disappointment. It was my first major experience of a big final and the emotions of it took their toll on me. There was a bit of an injury cloud over me and I’d experienced nothing like the media attention in the build-up. We played well in the first half but they blew us away in the second. I had nothing left to give in that second half.”
In 2007 Huddersfield made the Super League play-offs for the first time after enduring a nightmare start which saw them pointless after seven games.
“I think we just needed to get our best side out there,” said Thorman. “That was the be all and end all. The more you play together as a team, the better you do and it was great to prove people wrong and make the play-offs although it was disappointing to go out to Hull straightaway. We’ve got a lot of big game experience at the club – guys who have played in NRL Grand Finals or Challenge Cup finals so we expected to do better.
“This year, we’ve also had new players in the key positions like Luke Robinson and George Gatis and the results will come as the season goes on. Last year was tough but we came through it and we’re confident we will again. People are fickle in this sport and don’t get yourself a chance to get yourself out of the hole you’ve dug yourself in but we feel that we’re capable of getting things right.”
Thorman hasn’t hit his best form in 2008, as he freely admits, having come in for criticism from the club’s fans, frustrated at another poor start to the season which saw them lying tenth after 11 rounds of the competition.
“It’s disappointing but that’s the game we play. You have to take the good with the bad and I’ve had plenty of the good. You just have to work through it and you become a better player at the end of it. What doesn’t kill you makes you better and stronger. That’s how we all handle things. We’ll get where we need to be.
“I’ve got one more year left on my contract after this season. I’m 27 and have plenty more to offer yet.
“I’ve had a fantastic career and I wouldn’t change one thing. I’ve been around the world and I owe a lot to Rugby League.”
Thorman has played first-grade Rugby League under the coaching of both Brian and Tony Smith. Steve McNamara, Scott Donald, Jeff Hardy and Ben Kusto are the only other players to have served both brothers.
Thorman played under Tony at Huddersfield from 2000 to 2002 before playing for Brian at Parramatta in the NRL in 2004.
“They’re both brilliant coaches,” says Thorman.
“They have a lot of similarities and Tony had taken a lot from Brian – he’d have been foolish not to. Because Tony was about 10 or 15 years younger, he seemed to manage his players a bit better. That’s how I perceived it anyway. He had his way of getting his point across and he was more understanding that Brian. I could read Tony a bit easier and didn’t always understand what Brian wanted from me.
“Tony seemed to know me better and knew how my mind worked and that’s important.
“He’d also been a stand-off which helped me. He used to joke that I had the second best kicking game at the club, after him! He had a great knowledge of the game and everyone who’s been coached him would not have a bad word to say about his coaching abilities.
“When he arrived at Huddersfield to coach us, we just knew immediately that he was different class, that he was so thorough and that his coaching methods were really good. As a young player, he was intimidating at first but you realised that he only wanted you to improve. He was very methodical and he comes up with some really good ideas. He’s hard working and expects the same from everybody which is a great lesson to learn as a youngster. You’ve got to knuckle down and work harder than everyone else just to get noticed. That’s what he instilled in me. You’ve got to do the extras like turning up to training half an hour earlier.
“He’d come and smell your breath and look into your eyes, asking if you’d been for a drink the night before. You daren’t lie to him because he had spies everywhere in town. You had to be honest and if you’re being dishonest with yourself, you’re being dishonest with everyone. Tony taught me that and I’m a better person for it.
“I remember going into his office a few times for a telling off! We all liked to go out for a beer and the attitude at the club wasn’t particularly good with myself led astray by some senior players. The older guys were from the old school and not as professional as they should have been but Tony made me realise that you couldn’t expect to train well after a night of partying. It was good to realise that at an early age and it was pretty scary facing up to Tony in his office a few times back then.
“My relationship was different with Brian. I was close to Tony at the time but Brian had so many players to worry about at all the levels – first team, Premier League, Jersey Flegg, Harold Matthews and SG Ball. There were so many players for him to watch and be a father figure to. I was never close to him but I admired him and always listened to him. He had a presence about him.
“Brian and Tony, apart from my dad, are the only blokes I’ve been scared of! They have that effect on you. They’re not big blokes but when they stare at you, you daren’t stare back. Your eyes are on the floor! I probably had more bollockings off Tony though because I’d grown up a bit by the time I played for Parra!”
In search of the next Chris Thorman
Australian Dave Woods is the coach of Gateshead Thunder, the sport’s professional north-east club.
“We’ve got Neil, Chris’s brother, at the club and we do a lot of development work,” said Woods. “We tell kids that if they work hard enough then they can make it and Chris is a bloke that we point to.
“You could stick his head on a bus and it would help develop the game up here!
“But it’s very tough up here. We started an 18s team here last year and the boys did really well. They didn’t win a game but they competed in every one and they were giving two years away and playing teams from heartlands areas like Leeds and Halifax.
“We’re into a stack of schools now and we’re doing courses in Rugby League and interest is definitely growing up here. Kids’ involvement is growing and they’re getting to games too.
“Anywhere I coach, I think it’s important to have kids coming through. It was the same at Castleford and I’ve come from Penrith and Parramatta in the NRL; two of the biggest nurseries in the world. When I came here, I didn’t just want to concentrate on the first team, I wanted to make sure kids were coming through.”
People still associate Thunder with being largely Australian, a misapprehension that Woods is keen to address.
“We copped a bagging off Bobbie Goulding who recently called us a team full of Aussies and the RFL shouldn’t waste money on us,” said Woods. “In recent weeks, we’ve only had three Aussies, one Fijian and the rest are English blokes, of which 10 or 11 are north-east kids. Not many Super League or National League clubs can boast something like that. Goulding’s only got a two local Rochdale kids playing for him whereas we had 11 north-east kids in that game and it’s only going to get better.
“We’ve got one kid up here called Crawford Matthews who has captained Scotland at Under-16s at the age of 15 and he’s a local kid. He’ll be coming in to train with the first-team squad on the off-season and there are many others with the ability to play in the National Leagues.”
Woods is happy to report that the club is making progress off the field as well as on it.
“We’ve done a stack of work since I’ve been here. Last year, we had one shirt sponsor. This year, we’ve got one on the front, one on the back, two on each sleeve and two on the shorts. Our crowds are starting to rise and we’re seeing people in the crowds wearing the old jumpers again.
“We’re winning some games as well and that always helps!”