2019: The Year of the Old Dog
In a sporting age when the once perpetual calls for fresh-faced youth from fans and pundits alike have begun to fade into the background in favour of wizened veterans, we are witnessing the peak of rugby’s turn to grey-haired stalwarts in 2019.
We’re roughly halfway through the warm-up period before finalised World Cup squads are announced and fans still enter each weekend sacrificing gallons of beer and cider to the favour of the sporting gods, hoping to spare their nation’s most important players from tournament-ending injury. Wales’ Dan Biggar must by now have seen the equivalent of the River Severn ‘tributed’ to his good health.
But, there are men that will likely receive little praise when compared to their younger starting compatriots, yet are contributing liberal amounts to their coach's squad's constitution. The men with more grey hairs than caps have been called upon to help guide their various nations’ brash young stars to the kind of career triumphs that most of the population only reach once their dodgy knees have given in and weekly booze-ups with pals have been replaced by routine trips to the chiropractor. In short, the likes of Biggar hover over the precipice of the type of crowning achievement they would likely have had a decade's extra experience of in any other professional field.
The Springboks, under the guidance of wily SARU Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus, were perhaps the first to call upon those stars who left their domestic shores long ago to seek their fortune elsewhere. No player depicts this turn to forbearance more than former Saracens hooker and last weekend’s Springbok skipper Schalk Brits. At the ripe old age of 38, Brits earned just his thirteenth cap and second ever start over a decade when his beloved Springboks squeezed past Argentina 24-18 in Pretoria. While regular national captain Siya Kolisi started his first game back from injury, Erasmus entrusted the reigns to Brits, despite standing as likely the third-choice hooker in the South African squad behind Malcolm Marx and Bongi Mbonambi.
After first returning to the fold under Erasmus in 2018, Brits has since been joined by 32-year-old utility back Frans Steyn - who earned his 60th cap since debuting in 2006 from the bench in Pretoria on Saturday - and 34-year-old backrower Francois Louw, 68 caps in nine years. Although, Louw's performances have done little to suggest his is one of the older, more battered bodies in the team.
A number of nations have since followed Erasmus’s lead as they prepare their squads for the ninth edition of the tussle for the William Webb Ellis trophy. Australian boss Michael Cheika seems to have plucked Adam Ashley-Cooper out of a past decade, with the 35-year-old, 118-cap veteran continuing a Wallaby career that started as long ago as 2005 from the bench against the All Blacks last weekend.
Even those peerless New Zealanders persist with the old-but-gold Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre, despite the many box office alternatives impressing in Super Rugby. The 34-year-old Rugby Union, Rugby League and Boxing sensation went about proving his doubters wrong in a rock-solid performance last weekend that went some way in contributing to a 36-0 thrashing of Australia at Eden Park.
Casting our eyes northward, the same effect is beginning to creep into the northern hemisphere. After culling the experienced trio of Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and Danny Care, England’s Eddie Jones turned not to the next cab off the rank at the key position of scrum-half, but to the uncapped, yet vastly experienced, Kiwi-born halfback Willi Heinz. Earning his first taste of true international rugby, having faced England while playing for the Crusaders in 2014, Heinz became England's oldest debutant since 1983 at the ripe old age of 32. Jones had intended to head towards Japan with a squad swollen with far more caps than the current 1030, including a halfback tandem of nearly 200 caps. However, once the experienced Care was cast aside, Jones settled for Heinz’s impressive club experience and calm, measured personality ahead of the in-form Saracens man Ben Spencer, 27.
Even France have dipped into the stocks of players that debuted for their nation during the noughties, seeing sideburned 32-year-old wing/fullback Maxime Medard flaunting his impressive facial hair on the international scene once more.
The Chinese may see 2019 as the year of the pig - 12 months of fortune and personality - but the rugby world seems to have decided it is the year of the old dog. The experience that will rub off these old heads’ shoulders and onto the likes of Malcolm Marx and Reece Hodge could be key to helping their national team keep their calm during big moments in Japan, whether it be crucial pool games or World Cup finals.
It’s one last hurrah for the likes of Brits, Ashley-Cooper and SBW; while Heinz may have eyes on a curiously belated international career. You may not see much of these men outside of the lesser pool games or fleeting bench appearances - SBW aside – but they serve their own purpose behind the scenes, and remind us all of the importance of the type of composure that only age can proffer.