Golden oldies proving age is just a number

A number of older-generation players are proving their value at various South African franchises, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Morne Steyn doesn’t seem to age. The youngster who slotted the series-winning penalty against the British & Irish Lions in 2009 is the spitting image of the senior statesman who is winning big matches and tournaments for the Bulls more than a decade later.

The same haircut, the same cool expression, the same fluid approach to the kicking tee and – most significantly – the same three-point result. Coach Jake White clearly knew what he was doing when he recruited the 36-year-old before the Bulls’ rebuild in late-2020.

‘I watched Morne’s progression at Stade Francais, where he won championships,’ said White. ‘He’s just an unbelievable team guy, full of energy. He’s a lot more athletic than people think and the older he’s got, the more he’s understood about what he can and cannot do.

‘He looks after himself, he’s very fit and he’s a great role model. There’s no doubt he still has a massive role to play at the Bulls and he’s exactly the sort of general we need.’

Not that everyone agreed with White when the announcement was made. More than a few eyebrows were raised when veterans such as Steyn, Duane Vermeulen, Gio Aplon and several others over the age of 30 joined the Bulls. Some felt the franchise should have invested in a younger group.

White – a World Cup winner with the Boks in 2007 – knew better. The squad boasted experience as well as youth, and while Steyn, Vermeulen and the rest of the older contingent made game-shaping contributions during the Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup tournaments, they were also tasked with mentoring the less-experienced members of the group.

The impact of the older players was thus twofold.

Steyn provided the Bulls backline with some much-needed tactical balance, switching between the attacking and kicking game with aplomb. The selection of Cornal Hendricks – a wing in his previous life – at inside centre proved to be another masterstroke by White.

Hendricks, now 32, beat the odds to overcome a serious heart ailment and return to professional rugby a few years ago. He showed the same fighting spirit when starting at No 12 in the Super Rugby and Currie Cup tournaments, and emerged as one of the Bulls’ standout performers.

Even at the age of 34, Vermeulen was dominant at the gainline and breakdown. His leadership, as White explained after the Bulls’ gritty win over the Lions in the Currie Cup semi-final, amplified the potency of the collective.

‘Never underestimate what a good captain means to a team,’ said White. ‘The way he handled things, how he talked to the players … it was inspiring.

‘Remember, after two minutes in the second half, we were 14-0 ahead. A few minutes later, it was 14-all. It’s a great thing if your captain can still show calmness in a situation like that. But Duane also mentioned in the change room afterwards that while he might’ve come up with the words, he was grateful to see how the rest of the team responded, how determined they were to pull things through.

‘That’s not necessarily a tough thing to do when your leader is performing well himself. He was actually operating on another level. And that’s what you want, you want your best players to perform in these crunch games.’

The Bulls are not the only franchise who have shown an appreciation for older and more experienced players. Attitudes are changing around the country, as more and more coaches start to judge players by their abilities rather than their size or age.

Willem Alberts played 43 Tests for the Boks and was recognised as one of the most abrasive blindside flanks in his prime. Now 36 and starting at lock for the Lions, the ‘Bone Collector’ still has what it takes to provide his team with a physical edge at the gainline.

‘When I was younger, I remember 30 being considered old,’ said Alberts, who played his domestic rugby for the Lions and Sharks before moving to Stade Francais.

‘You didn’t find many players over that age playing in the South African system. I felt that the local game treated older players a bit unfairly. A large chunk of your local depth would be lost when a specific group of players reached 30.

‘It can’t be a coincidence that in 2019 guys like Beast Mtawarira, Duane and Schalk Brits made an impact in Super Rugby and then became World Cup winners. Experience, if it’s managed well, can make a massive difference to the local game, much more than some are willing to concede.’

Former Boks such as Jannie du Plessis (38), Alberts (36) and Jaco Kriel (31) make up the ‘old-man contingent’ at the Lions. Du Plessis, a veteran of 70 Tests and World Cup winner with the Boks in 2007, is older than members of the coaching staff such as Phillip Lemmer and Warren Whiteley.

‘Willem crashes into opponents as a defender and carrier, Jannie scrums like a beast, and Jaco’s leadership along with his bustling work rate makes an impact … that’s what makes them inspirational,’ noted Lemmer. ‘When they talk, everyone listens, because they’re setting the example on the field. Deeds help words carry more weight.’

Ruan Pienaar led the Cheetahs to the Currie Cup title in 2019, and is still with the franchise at the ripe old rugby age of 36. Last year, the former Bok scrumhalf convinced good friend Frans Steyn to move back to Bloemfontein. Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie noted that Steyn, a doubled World Cup winner, was still hungry to contribute on the domestic scene.

The 33-year-old has done most of his talking on the field across the 2020-21 season. Steyn made an impact with ball in hand and that cannon of a right boot in the Super Rugby Unlocked series, and then finished at the top of the goal-kicking charts after the Currie Cup league phase. No player scored more points during that period (73) or boasted a more accurate success rate (94%).

As Fourie points out, Steyn clearly has plenty more to offer. His performances for the Cheetahs would have caught the eye of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, and may have convinced the Springbok selectors that this ageing warrior will add value in the immediate future.

Some players maintain a high level of performance and continue to contribute in a team environment during the later stages of their Test careers. Springbok legend Victor Matfield was 30 when he produced a Man of the Match performance in the 2007 World Cup final.

The lock pushed on to help South Africa win the series against the Lions and subsequently the Tri-Nations title in 2009. Matfield’s influence was evident at the Bulls, as he led the Pretoria-based side to three Super Rugby titles as well as a Currie Cup victory between 2007 and 2009.

Matfield came out of retirement in 2014 to play a leadership role, and eventually travelled to the 2015 World Cup at the age of 38. His career finished on a low note after he lost a crucial lineout to opposite number Sam Whitelock in the semi-final against the All Blacks.

A stellar career was not tarnished by that one failure, though. What’s more, Matfield’s contributions in 2014 and 2015 aided the development of younger players such as Lood de Jager and Handre Pollard, who later went on to win the 2019 World Cup with the Boks.

Richie McCaw led the All Blacks to World Cup glory in 2011. While some may have opted to retire or to accept a lucrative club deal in Europe at that point, McCaw soldiered on with New Zealand. The All Blacks continued to evolve in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup. By the time McCaw lifted the trophy for a second time, they were widely recognised as the greatest team in the history of the sport.

McCaw was just a month shy of his 35th birthday when he led the All Blacks to victory in the final against the Wallabies. Dan Carter, arguably the best flyhalf of the professional era, was 33.

From a South African viewpoint, the more seasoned players at franchise and national level will have crucial roles to play in the years to come. The Bulls in particular will benefit from the fact that most of their older players have enjoyed lengthy stints at European clubs and will be well prepared for the unique challenges of competing in a new Pro16 tournament later this year.

The experience of Vermeulen, Frans Steyn and several other senior statesmen should also be harnessed when the Boks eventually face the Lions in a highly anticipated three-match series. Like White, national coaches Erasmus and Nienaber recognise the value in battle-hardened veterans and understand that age is just a number.

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Craig Lewis