Until this NRC season, Queensland Country had been looked down upon, the poor cousins of Queensland rugby, reflected by their record.
With just five wins from 23 games, Country had never finished higher than second-last in the NRC.
This season, they have already won six games, have secured a home semi-final and are well in the mix to top the table and earn full finals hosting rights.
To describe the turnaround as incredible would be the master of all understatements, but that is kind of what Queensland Country have been all about this season, most of that coming from coach Brad Thorn.
Thorn is the man who, as a 41-year-old forwards coach, packed into scrums for a couple of games alongside current Wallaby Izack Rodda, a youngster who back then was just hopeful of playing off the bench once.
He is the man whose playing career will quite likely remain unrivalled for some time - name a rugby trophy, and quite a few rugby league trophies and there's a fair chance Thorn has been involved in winning it.
Next year he’ll be the main man for the Queensland Reds, but right now he’s leading the Queensland Country charge to the NRC finals.
“Paul Carozza and myself as coaches, we’ve really invested in this group. The NRC has only been around four seasons, it’s a bit different to the NPC in New Zealand which has been around for 130-odd years, so we really wanted them to have a real connection to representing Queensland Country, and to have a real buy-in."
“We’ve trained them as professionally and as well we can. There’s a lot of young guys in the team, and even through they’re young, they’re doing the business.
"If you look at our captain (Duncan Paia’aua), he’s only 22, but he’s really taken to that role and everyone’s just bought in."
‘Buy-in’ is one of those great professional sports buzz terms, almost cliched to a degree, but hugely important in the pursuit of building a team to work toward a common goal.
Thorn is big on team culture and working hard together, sharing the rewards along the way, and it’s something that stands out when you speak to him.
But like the NSW Country Eagles, Queensland Country have an unusual set of circumstances. They may train in one place, but they’ll play on three different home grounds this season, in three different parts of Queensland. And that number might be four or five by the time the final is played.
“We just get on with it. I’m very low fuss, and Paul Carozza is as well," Thorn says.
"We don’t want drama, we’re not into carrying on, we just get the job done.
“It is what it is. We play in different places, and that’s good because we represent the country. It’d be nice to get to other places too, but it’s a bit hard with Queensland being such a big state.
“We’re big on humility, we’re keen to learn and to grow, and we’re big on camaraderie. Probably the happiest thing is seeing how tight they are as a group; there’s something special there, they just love being together, they love training together, and they love playing, and you see that when they’re playing.”
Much of what Thorn picked up during his extraordinary playing career is already being passed on to the next wave of young Queensland talent.
And much of that is not necessarily about what to do on the field. Thorn talks about his group coming together, about ‘buying in’ to representing Queensland Country rugby and it’s clear they have.
But only half the squad has actual country links. So how do you get city kids to adopt country values?
“It is what it is, but it’s still a representative team,” he explains.
“I grew up in rural New Zealand before I moved [to Brisbane], on the outskirts of Dunedin in a small town, but then about forty minutes from Queenstown in a farming community.
"I played with a lot of country boys in both league and in union, and the number one thing in a country town is you just need to be a solid person.
'You can’t be a jerk in a country town because it’s a small community and everyone knows everyone, has to look out for each other.
“Rural people always need to work hard, they have to sometimes adapt, they have to be smart about how they do stuff, they have a real work ethic. They have good values. That’s not the hardest thing to buy into.”
And there it is. So simple, so obvious.
“If you can get that in a team, you get selflessness, you get guys caring about the team. You can get some special stuff, that’s what I’ve experienced in twenty years anyway,” Thorn says.
Thorn admits to surprise at the speed of his coaching rise, but he says he also experienced this same rapid rise as a player.
He made his Brisbane Broncos debut at 19, and his first State of Origin debut for Queensland at 21. He made his transition back to rugby at Super Rugby level for the Crusaders. Two seasons later, he was an All Black.
“I’ve been in places where it’s awkward, and it’s like being thrown into a pool and you’re stuck swimming on the spot. You’ll wake up at five o’clock in the morning, and you’re feeling anxious, doubts, always things on your mind. Sometimes you just feel yuck, and it’s too much,” he says.
“But it’s happened as it’s happened. I’m a Christian man, and I believe I’m in God’s hands, and this is how it’s rolling at the moment. I’ll just give it my best crack.
“I don’t feel probably the pressure that maybe others feel, because I don’t see myself as a career coach, I haven’t been coaching for 15 years. I’m just me, Brad. Nothing’s really changed from when I played, I just serve the team, and serve the club on or off the field, and look to contribute.”
Thorn played under some of the greatest coaches either code has seen over the last 20 years; Wayne Bennett, Robbie Deans, Sir Graham Henry, to name a few. Yet he’s not spoken to any of them since turning to coaching, and not because he doesn’t want to, but simply because he hasn’t had the time to.
“I’m coaching the NRC, which means my weekends are taken up currently. I’ve been doing the strength training at the Reds for 11 months, I do the skills, I’m trying to prep for my first Super Rugby season, and I’ve got four kids waiting for me at home, and my wife, who’s a champion.”
However, he knows he’s picked things up off all his coaches along the way, all of them shaping him, as his father did when he was a child and his faith has for his entire life.
Thorn says he’s most looking forward to the being that same guiding figure for his young players now.
“The most important thing, probably, is to influence them as young men, to become young men," he says.
"Footy’s a part of your life, but this is an important time for them, they’re getting a feel for who they are as young men. Hopefully that flows on, through their lives in general. For a bloke with four kids, that’s really important to me.
Which brings us to the biggest challenge Queensland Country has ever faced as an NRC team: playing to secure finals hosting rights and top spot on the ladder, but even that is something Thorn takes in his stride.
“Fiji was a challenge; taking on a team of men. A lot of those guys are in their 30s, in the police force, or the army, they’ve all got families. That was a heck of challenge for a young group going over there," he says.
“We’ve had the challenge of playing Brisbane City, and we’d never beaten them before. We’ve never had back-to-back wins before; you could go on about things throughout the season that we’ve never done before.”
What he’s not had to contend with, however, is losing key players in key positions, as he will this weekend, with Paia’aua, Wright, Izaia Perese, and Taniela Tupou all called up for the Wallabies-Barbarians game.
“I’m from New Zealand, and I played 30 games for Canterbury in the NPC and I was proud to play for them,” Thorn says.
“Even as an All Black I always tried to get one or two or three games in each year for them. That’s how I got to 30 games, because I made efforts to play for them, to represent, because we respected that competition.”
“I find it interesting that these (Barbarians) games are on now, because I feel like you’re devaluing the NRC competition a bit. It’s the final round, of their competition, and teams are vying for the finals.
“I just find it interesting. I’m taking this comp seriously, so’s my team, so’s Paul Carozza… anyway.
“That being what it is, it’s just always about the squad, and I just believe in them. Whoever come into the team, I’ll believe in them, their teammates will believe in them.”
Despite the Spirit being down anywhere up to a dozen regulars this Sunday, with players in the Barbarians and the Wallabies sides, Thorn knows they won’t be a pushover.
“They had a really good season last year, winning the Final, and when you play those teams, like the Vikings, the Spirit, and the Rising, you’re basically playing their Super Rugby sides minus their Test players, so they’re tough games.
“They’re a good all-round team, and it’ll be a bit of challenge for them this week losing a few players – or, more than a few players – but again, it is what it is.
“So, we’ll go to Ipswich, and we’ll compete and they’ll compete as well, and we’ll get into it, and both teams will look to get a result.”
Queensland Country hosts Perth Spirit in Ipswich on Sunday, kicking off at 4pm local, 5pm AEDT, LIVE STREAMED on foxsports.com.au/live and the FOX SPORTS app.