By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - It has been Brad Thorn's way or the highway since the former All Blacks enforcer took the reins at the Queensland Reds three years ago and his single-minded approach has brought them to the brink of the Super Rugby AU title.
The Reds face the ACT Brumbies in the title decider in Canberra on Saturday, the ultimate test for an up-and-coming team hoping to bring pride back to Queensland after years of struggle.
It will also be a measure of the progress of the Thorn project two years after a purge of senior players that saw Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper frozen out and others not deemed a good fit for the programme.
The cleanout fitted the World Cup-winning lock's hard-nosed reputation, burnished over two decades of playing at the highest level in both rugby codes.
For Thorn, it was simply the quickest route to delivering hope to the rugby-mad state where he launched his professional career with rugby league's Brisbane Broncos.
"I just want rugby to be doing well in this state," the 45-year-old told reporters this week.
"I want to see it doing well at this level. It's not just about the Reds winning .... I'm very interested in the bigger picture of the game, the game's been so good to me."
Ironically, Queensland's greatest day in Super Rugby came at Thorn's expense when he played in the Canterbury Crusaders side defeated in the 2011 final at Lang Park.
For Thorn, it was meant to be his Christchurch-based team's day, the chance to take a trophy home to a city devastated by an earthquake a few months earlier.
"It still hurts," said Thorn, his gravelly voice dropping to a murmur.
"But to see a capacity crowd, 52,000 there, to see the Reds play such positive rugby, I just appreciated it.
"I understood that it had been hard times for quite a long time. How does that link now? It’s probably been similar, it’s been lean times.
"There's a great opportunity and this time I'm on the other side of the game as a coach. It’s a cool thing."
Joining the Reds in 2015 as a development squad coach, Thorn's punishing gym sessions were a shock to some players, as was his ability to hoist gut-busting weights.
Instead of using Ballymore's refurbished facilities, Thorn took players to a nearby tin shed.
"I just loved that shed. It's a work place," he said. "A lot of what you do is around your mindset. Sometimes you can have flash stuff, you lose that hunger, you lose that edge."
Handed the top job at the end of 2017, the Reds managed only six wins in each of his first two seasons in charge, raising the pressure on the team to show something more in 2020.
Thorn has also had to show more of himself, shelving the hard-man persona to console youngster Jordan Petaia after the death of his father, a blow deeply felt by the coach who lost his dad when he was a teenager.
Thorn hopes that having thrown centre Petaia and other young players "into the frying pan", they will come out breathing fire on Saturday.
"They're pretty determined about this weekend and so they should be."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing By Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford)