Vale Noel ‘Sailor’ Thornton

Noel Thornton, Men of League Foundation member number 2,670, passed away on Thursday 11 January 2018.

Noel was a valued member and received assistance from the Foundation during times of medical issues. He began his first-grade rugby league career with Wests Magpies in 1965 then went on to play for the Cronulla Sharks before going on the coach the team in 1974.

The following article by Tony Lewis profiles Noel in an interview conducted in 2012:

I spoke by phone to Noel Thornton at his home in Tweed Heads about his days at Wests, it was good to talk with one of my Wests heros. Noel ‘Sailor’ Thornton was a true clubman who played 100% week in week out for Wests. He played 35 first-grade games between 1965 and 1967. Remember for two of those three years there were only 10 teams in the comp.

Wests paid the Brisbane team Brothers an 800 pound transfer fee for Noel, quite a tidy sum in those days. Noel had played Aussie Rules as a kid before playing rugby league for Warwick as a teenager. Noel, in his prime, would play union on Saturday and league on Sunday. During his playing days with Brothers he played for Brisbane against the French touring team of 1964. Newspaper reports of the day said Thornton dominated scrums to give Brisbane a monopoly of possession. Brisbane beat France 23-17.

Luckily for Wests, Noel was spotted by an ex Wests player Pat Leal. Pat played on the wing for Wests 1946-1953. As an aside, I was told that Pat kept a comb in his football socks when he played and would comb his hair after ever tackle he was involved in. Noel decided to give Wests a go so as a fresh faced 25 year old Noel moved to Sydney. Wests that year made the Final of the preseason Cup, which at that time was called the Craven Filter Series. Once again we were beaten by St George. The score: Saints 15, Magpies 7. Noel’s first game in the Sydney big time was at the home of rugby league, the S.C.G. on April 3 1965. Noel’s two props that day were Denis Meaney and fellow Queenslander Brian Kowald. The score: Saints 13, Wests 9. Later that year, Noel would know victory in the State Cup, Wests beat Parramatta 16 to 14.

In 1966, Wests’ new coach Noel ‘Ned’ Kelly was in the front row with Sailor and Alan Allison who was having his first year at Wests had also come down from Brothers. Ned Kelly had taken over the coaching from Ken ‘Killer’ Kearney. Many youngsters came into grade in 1966 including Dennis Pittard who Noel has chosen as one of the best players from his years at Wests. Noel also spoke of Roy Ferguson and Noel Kelly as being outstanding players and teammates. And as far as the opposition goes, North Sydney hooker Ross Warner was more than a handful.

Unfortunately for Noel the 1967 season started off with him having a serious knee injury in a pre-season game and a major knee operation was required. He played only a handful of games that year for Wests. Noel was living at Cronulla along with two other ex-Wests players Jack Gibson (1963-64) and Monty Porter (1955) so when Cronulla made him an offer to play for them in 1968 he once again teamed up with coach Ken Kearney.

Noel was captain for Cronulla for the 2 seasons he played with them 1968 and 1969. Due to a job offer at the Kurnell oil refinery, Noel quit football for the time being.

Noel was appointed coach of Cronulla in 1974 following the departure of Tommy Bishop to Brisbane North’s. Noel was chosen over Norm Proven for the job. After an unhappy year at Endeavour Field, Noel was asked by Master coach Jack Gibson to coach East’s reserve grade. That year, of course, Easts beat St. George 38 to nil in the famous 1975 Grand Final.

For the next few years Noel coached in the Illawarra district. During this time, he coached Wollongong to win the country championship.

Two of the raw young players that Noel helped along the way were Craig Young and Steve Morris.

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