Former Parramatta and Leeds fullback Ken Thornett has died at the age of 78.
Leeds Rhinos have posted this tribute on their website:
“It is with deep regret that the club has learnt of the death of 1961 Championship winning full back Ken Thornett.
Born in Orange, 150 miles West of Sydney and at altitude, he arrived at Headingley on trials in March 1960 as a barrel-chested, imposing last line who quickly developed a trademark, iron-palmed hand off, seen in many of the enduring images of his stay.
He was given a trial by Leeds on the recommendation of Arthur Clues and immediately galvanized a staid side. His swashbuckling antics from the back endeared him to teammates and fans alike as the Loiners finished the season with a flourish but that was merely a taste of what was to come.
Returning in September, he was instrumental in the march to the first ever Championship as the club achieved its long cherished holy grail. Scoring four tries and a goal in the run to the Final at Odsal, he again was the rock at the back as Warrington were put to the sword. In all he played 131 times for Leeds, including a dozen games in autumn 1965 when the club suffered an horrendous injury crisis and again turned to him in their hour of need.
Soon after his original return in 1963 he was selected to tour with the Kangaroos who were based in Leeds for the majority of the stay. Their official guide to the city, he was given the nickname ‘The Mayor’ by his teammates as wherever he took them he was mobbed by grateful Leeds fans.
He had his own personal calling card which thrilled his legion of fans at Headingley far more than it ever did the unwilling recipient. An elegant runner, destructive tackler and superb reader of play, he is best remembered for his punishing hand off. Catching the ball from a long opposition kick, his outstretched palm would almost disdainfully remove the first of the would-be chasers from his path to set up another thrilling counter attacking charge.
In 2011, Ken returned to Leeds from his home in Australia for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Championship winning season. Speaking about his time at Leeds he said: “I recall a marvellous time during the early days, I have lots of good memories. I loved living in Leeds and enjoyed the pub culture, visiting the Yorkshire Dales and of course the Leeds people are great. The camaraderie is unbeatable.”
He made 131 appearances for the Leeds, his last coming against Castleford in 1966, and scored 19 tries and two goals. His heritage number is 953. He represented Australia in 12 Test matches and had a lasting influence at Parramatta, who he made 133 appearances for.
With brothers John and Dick Thornett forging careers in international rugby, Ken changed codes to play for Leeds before he had the opportunity to play a RU Test. He had actually gone to Leeds to be a woolclasser but Leeds beat Parramatta and South to his signature.
He was a dangerous attacking player and safe under pressure, it is said English bookies gave up giving odds on when he would drop a ball.
Joining the Eels, he became an institution at full back despite being plagued by knee trouble late in his career.
He made his Test debut in the Series against New Zealand in 1963, scoring a decisive try in the 14-0 Third Test win at the SCG to give Australia the series. He then played in all six Tests on the Ashes winning Kangaroo tour in 1963-64, with St George full back Graeme Langlands playing in the centres. A try scorer in the record-breaking 50-12 win over England in the Second Test, he was also the first Australian full back to score a try in a Test match on a Kangeroo tour. His last Test series was against France in 1964 but he went on to give great service to the Eels (captain-coach 1965).
He left Sydney in 1968 to become a farmer at Binnaway in northwest NSW. Captain-coach of Coonabarabran, he returned to Parramatta in 1971 to captain the troubled club to the semi-finals. He was later honoured with a the dedication of a grandstand at Parramatta Stadium in his name and each year.
His former team mate Derek Hallas paid tribute to his good friend: “Ken was one of the best full backs to ever play for Australia and Leeds. He had a nickname of bucket as he never dropped the ball. From the day he joined Leeds we became good friends and I even went to play alongside him again at Parramatta. We have always remained in touch and we spoke on the phone once a month. It’s hard to come up with words adequate enough to describe just how good of a player he was, he was phenomenal. He made history at the club as part of the first championship winning side and he will be fondly remembered by all who knew him.”.