FIFTY FOUR years ago this week, one of Leeds’ greatest imports made his first appearance for the club.
Australian full-back Ken Thornett’s debut came on March 19, 1960, when he scored a try in a 16-8 win over Batley at Headingley.
That was the first of 131 appearances – and 19 tries – in blue and amber for the former rugby union player, who – after arriving in England with the intention of turning professional – turned out five times for Rosslyn Park’s second team before heading north for a trial with Leeds.
Thornett had a strange excuse for taking leave from Leeds in August of 1960: he travelled to Rome to watch his brother Dick represent Australia in the Olympic water polo tournament.
Dick also played for Australia in both codes and a third brother, John, captained his country at rugby union. In total, the three brothers played in 70 Tests across both forms of rugby.
Ken Thornett returned from spectating at the Olympics to play a starring role in the 1961 Championship final win over Warrington and became a firm favourite with Leeds’ fans before his contract ended in April, 1963.
Returning to Australia, he signed for Parramatta – a side he had played seven games with in the English off-season of 1962 – and was quickly called into the Australian Test side.
He appeared in three internationals against New Zealand and also faced South Africa before being called up for a return to England as a member of the Kangaroo touring squad.
Thornett played in all six Tests on that tour and was so popular when the group was in Leeds, his team-mates nicknamed him The Mayor.
He was a try scorer in the opening Test against Great Britain at Wembley and so became the first full-back to touch down against Great Britain, France, New Zealand and South Africa.
In October, 1965, Leeds suffered a run of four successive defeats, which led to them sending an SOS to Australia for reinforcements. Thornett took up the challenge and returned to the club for a three-month, 12-game stint during the Aussie off-season – his arrival sparking a run of six straight victories.
The popular full-back played his last match for Leeds on January 8, 1966, when Castleford were defeated 8-7 at Headingley, thanks to two tries and a goal from Mick Shoebottom.
Thornett’s departure, coupled with an injury to Robin Dewhurst – who was later to coach the club – left Leeds without either a goal kicker or full-back, but led to the start of another great career as former England rugby union back Bev Risman was signed from Leigh.
Paramatta Stadium’s western grandstand is named in Thornett’s honour and in 2008 he was named among Australia’s 100 greatest players to mark the centenary of rugby league Down Under.