Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sydney University Football Club lost one of its favourite sons last Friday with the passing of John Edward Thornett MBE at the age of 83.

John made his debut for SUFC as an 18-year-old engineering undergraduate in 1953, after having attended Sydney Boys High School. He went on to play 70 First Grade and eight lower grade matches over the next five seasons.

During that time he played in three winning Grand Finals: in 1953 (defeated Eastern Suburbs 29-6), 1954 (defeated St George 22-17) and 1955 (defeated Gordon 21-8) and was awarded a Varsity Rugby Blue at Sydney University in 1953.

John made his NSW debut against Queensland in 1955 and on 20 August the same year he was named Wallaby number 410 (SUFC Wallaby No.49) when he started at flanker against the All Blacks at Athletic Park in Wellington.

Seven years later at the same venue he captained the Wallabies for the first time in a nine-all draw against New Zealand and in 1965 he led the team to their first major Test series win when they defeated South Africa in consecutive Tests for the first time in 67.

John played five of his 37 Tests while at SUFC and after graduating he continued his club career with Northern Suburbs. He retired from international rugby following the 1967-68 tour of the British Isles, but continued to play for Norths where he amassed 126 matches and led the club to five Grand Finals.

He captained the Wallabies on four of his eight tours and became the second Australian after the late Sir Nicholas Shehadie to play 100 matches for the Wallabies.  He ended his career on 118 appearances for the Wallabies, as well as 21 representative matches for NSW.

His versatility in the gold jersey was remarkable. During his 13-year international career, he packed down as a flanker, number eight and as a tighthead and loosehead prop. His versatility was only matched by his leadership qualities and sportsmanship. Indeed, his influence on the sport was compared to that of Don Bradman’s to cricket.

He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Australian Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005, as well as receiving the Australian Sports Medal in 2000. In 2013, he was one of 11 legends inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, becoming the 63rd member of the club. Following his retirement he wrote a manual on rugby coaching and also served as vice-president of NSW Rugby Union.

John was the eldest of three brothers who all went on to represent Australia. Kenneth (Ken) and Richard (Dick) switched to rugby league early in their careers and both went on to become Kangaroos. Dick later returned to rugby and became a dual international. He also represented Australia in water polo at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games.

The Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust recognised the Thornett brothers’ contribution to the Australian sporting landscape and paid homage to them with a plaque on the Walk Of Honour in the SCG precinct. “The Thornett Brothers” plaque sits alongside other Australian sporting legends including Dally Messenger, Reg Gasnier and Trevor Allen.

John Thornett is survived by his wife Vivienne.