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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Kitson in Paris

No country for old men? Last dance for Rugby World Cup’s elder statesmen

Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen celebrate together after South Africa’s semi-final win against England
Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen, aged 31 and 37 respectively, are among the experienced heads who have helped South Africa reach the World Cup final. Photograph: Aurélien Meunier/Getty Images

The final week of a Rugby World Cup is always bittersweet. For a start there is the dubious honour of the “bronze final” for the semi-final losers, a contractual obligation best described as “character-building”. There is also a hint of wistfulness as familiar old stagers and battle-scarred monarchs of the glen prepare for one last dance in the jerseys they have worn with huge distinction.

On this occasion, the list is dominated by forwards who, in some cases, seem to have been around since the dawn of time. Sam Whitelock is now the most capped All Black in history, with even the great Richie McCaw in his rearview mirror. Also awaiting the final curtain are Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole, each of whom has won a century of caps for England in good times and bad and would be prime contenders for anybody’s Top Bloke XV.

Then there is the 38-year-old Agustín Creevy of Argentina. With the exception of South Africa’s Siya Kolisi, few modern Test captains have ever exuded more passion and pride during the singing of their nation’s anthem. Duane Vermeulen, South Africa’s No 8, is now 37, and has been playing senior rugby for 18 years. Anyone tempted to suggest the game is going soft should probably run their hunch past Vermeulen and his rock-hard teammate Eben Etzebeth first.

What immense assets all these old-school survivors have been in a sport that mostly celebrates youthful vigour. The sheer commitment required to stay at the top for so long should never be underestimated, nor the various periods of physical and mental adversity they have inevitably had to overcome. As Lawes admitted to the Guardian a couple of years ago, it does not get any easier: “When you’re younger you can train like a nutter the whole week and be fine at the weekend. When you get older you can’t quite do that.”

Sam Whitelock goes up at a lineout
Sam Whitelock, aged 35, has impressed once again for the All Blacks. Photograph: Michael Steele/World Rugby/Getty Images

And yet, somehow, they are all still going strong. On Saturday, against South Africa, the 34-year-old Lawes gave another staggeringly committed performance, putting even the mighty Springboks on the back foot. Capped 105 times for England, a veteran of four World Cups and a Test regular on two British & Irish Lions tours, he deserves to be remembered as one of the most estimable English forwards of all time.

The 35-year-old Whitelock, similarly, has never gone looking for accolades or fuss, but his longtime second-row partnership with Brodie Retallick outlasted many marriages. He, too, was a key figure in New Zealand’s remarkable quarter-final win over Ireland, coming up with the crucial turnover that curtailed the protracted late Irish surge. Whitelock was the first player to feature in four World Cup semi-finals and, in his 153rd Test, could become the first man in history to win three World Cups if New Zealand triumph in the final.

Alongside him in the last-chance saloon is another class act, Aaron Smith, the consummate All Black scrum-half. What a brilliant player he has been for New Zealand, with his Rolls-Royce of a pass and razor-sharp rugby instinct. There was a spell when his career was in danger of stalling but, aged 34, he has been in eye-catching form at this tournament. If his team do win another World Cup, he will be among the key reasons why.

At which point it is tempting to identify a common theme. There was not a single member of the Springbok starting pack against England, for example, aged under 30. The reserve hooker, Deon Fourie, is 37 and Willie le Roux is 34. Remember when England’s World Cup winners were labelled “Dad’s Army” in Australia in 2003? Even the squad’s senior pro, Jason Leonard, was “only” 35 years old when he appeared off the bench in the final.

Had New Zealand not pipped Ireland in the quarter-finals, the 38-year-old Johnny Sexton would have been in the mix somewhere this weekend, too. Ben Youngs, 34, is embarking on his final Test lap. No Country for Old Men? Not on the evidence of this World Cup. As it happens one of the stars of that aforementioned Coen brothers film, the Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem, was in Paris for New Zealand’s semi-final win over Argentina last Friday night. Back in the day Bardem played rugby for Spain and says the game has long been one of his passions. If anyone ever makes a movie about a bunch of grizzled oval-ball veterans, he would be the perfect man to call.

Javier Bardem, who has previously played rugby for Spain, watches the semi-final in Paris.
Javier Bardem, who has previously played rugby for Spain, watches the semi-final in Paris. Photograph: Zabulon Laurent/Abaca/Shutterstock

And thanks to modern-day rehab expertise, it could well be a trend that continues. Players who are disciplined enough to look after their bodies are prolonging their top-level careers in greater numbers than ever before. As long as they still possess the desire and the mental stamina, there is good money to be made from their bruising trade as well.

But hang on a second. This is World Cup final week and the ultimate test is still to come. South Africa’s bench made a significant difference again in the semi-final but, equally, the Boks looked slightly sluggish in the first half. If one or two of their veterans are slowing up, sentiment cannot cloud the selection equation.

The All Blacks, for their part, were able to withdraw many of their senior players relatively early in their semi-final and have also had an extra day’s rest. Meanwhile, their 25-year-old winger Will Jordan cannot stop scoring and needs only one more try to eclipse Jonah Lomu, Bryan Habana and Julian Savea and set a new individual record in the World Cup. Can the old timers complete the job or might fleet-footed youth have the last laugh? The stage is tantalisingly set.

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