They say rugby is a young man’s game.
That would be true if you watch premier club rugby in some of the bigger centres. Other than the odd veteran who is keen to throw himself into rucks well into his 30s, it’s like an extension of First XV rugby. Most teams would have an average age in the early 20s.
Where is the grizzled old veteran welcoming the young buck to senior footy, as Mata’afa Keenan did in emphatic fashion to rookie prop Paul Thomson in a 1994 Varsity-Grammar game in Auckland? The days of a Craig Dowd doing his front-row apprenticeship with two seasons in the Suburbs Under 21s are over. Players are too impatient now.
But the 2020 Mitre 10 Cup has welcomed back more veterans, seasoned campaigners, than ever. Many are back home because New Zealand is one of the safer places to live let alone play footy (at least outside the Auckland region). They are not back for the money. Mitre 10 Cup wages have taken a hit, for something around 15-20 percent across the board.
Kieran Read for example, has not suited up with his native Counties Manukau to boost his retirement fund. He feels a connection, wants to play for the union he watched in the 1990s on the famous Pukekohe bank (slippery when wet). He will be on pocket money compared to his wage in Japan, though we still don’t know who paid his Toyota Verblitz insurance fee or whether Steve Hansen waived it.
It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a prodigious young No 8 talent by the name of Viliami Taulani, whose rep career thus far has promised more than it has delivered, will be soaking up lessons from a 127-test All Black. If Read can win a few lineouts, carry hard, give the last pass for the odd try, all the better for the Steelers. What’s more, he’s going to be around for the duration, unlike, say, Dalton Papali’i. That leadership and experience will be priceless to a young, raw Steelers outfit.
Tasman went back to Alex Ainley, a Mako original, and 39 years of age, to stiffen up their second-row stocks after Pari Pari Parkinson went down and Quinten Strange was still battling injury. He will be gold for the champs, even if he spends more time in jersey No 19 than 4.
Waikato is mostly full of youth and vigour, but its loose forward stocks include one two former All Blacks No 6s who cannot spell retirement. Adam Thomson went, in the space of two years, from nearly dying, to playing rugby, being whistled up for Super Rugby, to signing with the Mooloos. He’s 38, but powered through 64 minutes against Wellington, scored a try and more than held his own against a Lions loose trio of Ardie Savea, Du’Plessis Kirifi and Vaea Fifita.
Liam Messam did not play last weekend. He’s 36 and back from two seasons at Toulon. He’ll do a similar job at Waikato to the one Marty Holah did back in 2014, setting the standards at training and his approach to game. Contracts for those on the wrong side of 35 are drying up in France, though Jerome Kaino is still going at 37 for Toulouse.
Which reminds me, Marc Cecillon bowed out for his beloved Bourgoin at 39 (!) after 23 seasons. That’s a fearful amount of French scrums, let along bagarres generales. Five years later, in a fit of drunken pique, he shot his wife dead at a barbeque.
But I digress.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 17, 2020
At 35, Jamie ‘Whopper’ Mackintosh is back from his Gulliver’s Travels to be the Otago scrum coach, but he could yet suit up if needed.
Ben May is 37, pushing 38, and going around one last time, this season with Taranaki, his sixth province in a long and colourful career that kicked off even before the NPC reformatting of 2006. ‘Bam Bam’ has racked up over 250 first-class games and may just fancy one last title (and a Ranfurly Shield) with the Bulls.
We’ve left Jason ‘Cabbage’ Rutledge to last, but certainly not least. At 42 and after another premier club title with Woodlands, the hooker was called into the Stags to cover after an injury to former skipper Flynn Thomas. He came off the bench to see the Stags through to an upset 16-10 win over Hawke’s Bay in Invercargill last weekend. Crossfit and his physical plumbing job have maintained his fitness levels. Rutledge extended his appearance record for Southland to 140 and you just know what he will bring to the cause: total commitment.
He would smile that the Steelers reserve rake Shaun Muir made his provincial debut at 35 last weekend after five club titles with Bombay.
There’s still a place for the old fellas in our game. You young bucks better soak up the lessons. There’ll be plenty of them.
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