Even four years after his last appearance for Southland, veteran hooker Jason Rutledge stood as one of the province’s most revered rugby cult heroes.
His reputation within New Zealand’s southernmost province must have only grown stronger on Sunday, though, as the former Highlanders star returned to first-class action to help his beloved Stags defeat Hawke’s Bay in Invercargill.
In doing so, the 42-year-old became the oldest player ever to pull on the maroon and purple jersey, beating the long-standing record held by utility back Isaac Jenkins, who played his last game for Southland as a 40-year-old in 1908.
The feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that only eight players in New Zealand’s lengthy provincial rugby history have been older than Rutledge when they have taken to the field.
A plumber by trade, Rutledge answered an SOS call put out by Southland head coach Dale MacLeod after a finger injury ruled Talemaitonga Tuapati out of action for the team’s season-opener against the Magpies.
With youngster Flynn Thomas also out for the season, 60-game former Highlander was named to play in New Zealand’s premier provincial competition for the first time since 2016, starting on the bench as a back-up to Greg Pleasants-Tate.
The wait for Rutledge’s unlikely return ended in the 73rd minute of the match, when he replaced Pleasants-Tate – who had scored both of Southland’s tries – and helped close the game out for the Stags to secure a shock 16-10 victory.
— Mitre 10 Cup (@Mitre10Cup) September 13, 2020
The win, only Southland’s fourth in as many years, marked 20 years since Rutledge first played for his hometown side, with his debut coming in the same year that new All Blacks lock Tupou Vaa’i was born in.
At the other end of the spectrum, he is older than two of this season’s five Super Rugby Aotearoa head coaches – Leon MacDonald (also 42-years-old, turns 43 six days after Rutledge) and Aaron Mauger (39).
Already a Southland record-holder with 140 provincial games to his name, Rutledge still has some way to go before he topples A.E Wood, who played for Hawke’s Bay at 48-years-old in 1911, as the country’s oldest provincial player of all-time.
The son of former All Blacks flanker and fellow Southland legend Leicester, Rutledge – who will celebrate his 43rd birthday in December – told Stuff last week that the chance to ingrain himself into the province’s record books was one that he would savour.
“If you can get a name in a book it’s pretty cool for my kids or my grandkids to look and see Dad’s name there, or whatever. It is special,” he said.
Dependant on whether Tuapati recovers from his injury, Rutledge could add to his tally of appearances for Southland this week when the Stags travel to Rotorua to face Bay of Plenty on Saturday.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now