Can we still rely on our older players in the Rugby World Cup? Is it their last chance to shine?
The last week of the Rugby World Cup is always a mix of emotions. There is the less than desirable “bronze final” for the teams that lost in the semi-finals, which can be seen as a challenging experience. And there is also a sense of nostalgia as veteran players and experienced leaders get ready for their final game in the jerseys they have proudly worn throughout their successful careers.
For this particular instance, the majority of the list is made up of forwards who have been playing for a long time. Sam Whitelock has now become the player with the most appearances for the All Blacks, surpassing even the legendary Richie McCaw. Other players like Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole have also reached the milestone of 100 caps for England, proving their value as top players in both good and bad times. They would definitely be strong contenders for anyone’s “Top Bloke XV” team.
Agustín Creevy, a 38-year-old from Argentina, stands out as one of the most passionate and proud test captains, alongside South Africa’s Siya Kolisi. Despite being 37 years old and having played senior rugby for 18 years, Duane Vermeulen, South Africa’s No 8, remains a formidable force on the field. For those who believe rugby is becoming less physical, it may be wise to consult Vermeulen and his equally tough teammate Eben Etzebeth before making such claims.
Older athletes who have been in the game for a long time are valuable assets, especially in a sport that tends to prioritize youthfulness. The dedication and perseverance needed to maintain a high level of performance over an extended period of time should not be underestimated. These veterans have undoubtedly faced numerous challenges, both physically and mentally, but they continue to overcome them. As Lawes mentioned in an interview with the Guardian a few years ago, the training and recovery process becomes more difficult with age.
Despite their age, they continue to thrive. During the match against South Africa on Saturday, 34-year-old Lawes once again delivered a remarkably dedicated performance, even causing the formidable Springboks to retreat. With 105 appearances for England, four World Cup appearances, and two British & Irish Lions tours under his belt, he deserves recognition as one of the most admirable English forwards in history.
At 35 years old, Whitelock has never sought recognition or attention, but his partnership with Brodie Retallick in the second-row has endured longer than many marriages. He played a crucial role in New Zealand’s impressive quarter-final victory over Ireland, making a decisive turnover that halted their late comeback. Whitelock is the only player to have appeared in four World Cup semi-finals and, with his 153rd Test approaching, he could become the first person to win three World Cups if New Zealand is successful in the final.
Next to him in the final opportunity bar is another top performer, Aaron Smith, the exceptional scrum-half for the All Blacks. He has been an outstanding player for New Zealand, known for his impeccable passing and quick decision-making on the rugby field. There was a period where his career was at risk of coming to a halt, but at 34 years old, he has been impressing with his performance at this competition. If his team is able to win another World Cup, he will be one of the main factors contributing to their success.
It is tempting to find a common theme in this situation. None of the players in the starting pack for the Springboks against England were under the age of 30. The backup hooker, Deon Fourie, is 37, and Willie le Roux is 34. This is reminiscent of when England’s World Cup winning team was called “Dad’s Army” during the 2003 tournament in Australia. Even the most experienced player on the squad, Jason Leonard, was only 35 years old when he came off the bench in the final match.
If New Zealand had not beaten Ireland in the quarter-finals, the 38-year-old Johnny Sexton would have also been a contender this weekend. However, 34-year-old Ben Youngs is starting his final round of tests. This World Cup has proven that age is not a factor. Interestingly, one of the actors from the Coen brothers’ film “No Country for Old Men,” Javier Bardem, was present at New Zealand’s semi-final victory over Argentina in Paris last Friday. Bardem used to play rugby for Spain and has always been a devoted fan of the sport. If a movie is ever made about a group of seasoned rugby players, he would be the ideal choice.
Thanks to advancements in rehabilitation, this could potentially become a long-lasting trend. Athletes who prioritize taking care of their bodies are now able to extend their professional careers more frequently than in the past. As long as they maintain their drive and mental strength, they can also continue to earn well in their physically demanding profession.
However, let’s pause for a moment. This week is the World Cup final and the ultimate challenge is yet to be faced. South Africa’s substitutes once again had a major impact in the semi-final, but at the same time, the team appeared slightly slow in the first half. If some of their experienced players are showing signs of decline, emotions should not affect the decision-making process for choosing the team.
The All Blacks were able to substitute their experienced players early in the semi-final, giving them an extra day of rest. Additionally, their 25-year-old winger Will Jordan has been consistently scoring and is just one try away from surpassing Jonah Lomu, Bryan Habana, and Julian Savea to set a new individual record in the World Cup. Will the veteran players be able to finish the task or will the young and speedy players have the final say? The stage is set for an exciting showdown.
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