Gavin Spillane discusses the six elder statesmen that could, and should, play a major part in this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Recently, 35 year-old Marco Bortolami was omitted from the Italian squad while veteran Seremaia Bai was axed from the Fiji squad. This was a blunt reminder of the demands of World Cup rugby and the cruelty of sport.
As rugby players age it becomes more difficult to maintain their bodies as they put it through hell day-in day-out. One only have to look as far as Ryan Jones’ recent retirement to see the deteriorating effects of top flight rugby.
It is high time homage was paid to the elder men of the rugby world. The grandmasters of the game who will be looking to help their team go all the way this September at the World Cup, the commitment involved shouldn’t go understated.
Here are six old timers who are still on the big stage and who we should see at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in the UK.
1. Jamie Cudmore (Canada)
At 6ft 5 and 120 kg, Cudmore is one of many imposing figures in the Canadian setup. He is preparing for his fourth World Cup and is frankly in ridiculously good shape for a lock who is a few days shy of his 37th birthday.
Recent failure to obtain silverware at Clermont Auvergne will only spur this giant on as he enters the twilight of his career. The king of the gym will look to wreak havoc in a pool containing Ireland, France, Italy and Romania. Like everyone he will have his sights set on a quarter-final spot.
Although the Canadian has a colourful disciplinary record (mostly yellow and red) he is a true stalwart in this Canadian team and will look to leave a mark on what is sure to be his last World Cup.
2. Mauro Bergamasco (Italy)
It would be remiss not to mention him. The hardy backrow is set to match Brian Lima’s record for most World Cup campaigns and tag a few extra caps on to his impressive tally of 102. Making his debut back in 1998, Bergamasco has since become an integral part of Italy’s playing style. At 36, he will close the curtain on what has been an awesome career. Like many Italians he has been an extremely underrated player and all the times he spoiled opposition’s attacks often go unmentioned.
In his time as a professional rugby player, he has joined five clubs, playing 315 games for club and country and scoring 33 tries in the process. Unfortunately, the day he was forced to play scrumhalf against England will live long in the typical rugby fan’s memory but obviously that doesn’t discount from 17 impressive years of traditional flanker performances; committed, gritty and on the edge.
3. Keven Mealamu (New Zealand)
A hooker whose consistency has been one of his biggest assets since debuting back in 2002, 13 years and 125 caps ago. Confirming he will hang up his boots after the World Cup, Mealamu will be looking to finish his career with back-to-back World Cup titles. The 36-year-old front row is second choice to speedster Dane Coles but there’s no doubt Mealamu will play a big part in the All Blacks RWC campaign.
Regarded as one of the toughest men to pull on an All Blacks jersey, Mealamu will have to be at his best when he helps New Zealand go into the trenches against physical sides in Pool C like Georgia and Argentina. The Auckland Blues stalwart has had an incredible career, when the World Cup concludes rugby shall lose a great servant.
Check out the emotion after Mealamu’s last game for the Blues:
4. Nick Easter (England)
The Harlequins number 8 isn’t a certainty to participate in the World Cup but he definitely could add something to England’s plan. The English backrow were played off the park against France in the last game; Billy Vunipola did Easter a favour with a pretty poor performance.
When the 37-year-old was introduced into the game he certainly made a difference. His workrate seems to be ticking fine and he has brilliant hands so his inclusion should definitely be considered.
With over 300 appearances for club and country combined, Nick Easter has bags of experience and has one the best rugby brains in the game. If the Harlequins veteran doesn’t travel to what would be his third World Cup, one feels he still has plenty more to offer to his club having signed on for another two years in January. If he does travel he could provide the trademark composure and rugby intelligence that England so badly need in a pool where they cannot afford to slip up.
Either way Easter has served as a brilliant eightman for England since arriving late onto the scene in 2007. He was left out in the wilderness for three years before returning to the England set up this year and showing Lancaster what he was missing. A tough decision is to be made.
5. Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
The Limerick giant will turn 36 around the time of the World Cup semi-finals, the stage that has evaded Ireland over the last seven tournaments. There wouldn’t be a more fitting send off for the former Munster man than to go beyond the semi-final and win the World Cup.
He has overcome seasons blighted with injuries to become one of the most influential rugby players of today. Having won player of the Six Nations this year and penned a two-year deal to ply his trade in Toulon, it is easy to see Paul O’Connell is in the form of his life.
A talismanic presence around the field and a huge part of the lineout-driving maul that has served Schmidt’s men so well, Ireland simply cannot do without their captain. A man of such stature that his teammates seem to play better just by his presence alone. It will truly be a sad day for international rugby when the three-time Lion retires from his Irish mantle of 13 years and makes his way to the south of France.
A true professional and born leader, there is still a lot more to come from the Paul O’Connell over the next two years.
6. Victor Matfield (South Africa)
Even at the age of 38, Matfield is an indispensable figure in the Springbok set up. A lineout general and still a grafter around the rucks, the towering second row is a leader of the highest order. His retirement only lasted two years before he pulled on the South African number 5 jersey again and signed a deal with his old stomping ground the Blue Bulls.
Fast forward to today and the 2007 World Cup winner is set to lead the Boks and win back the Webb Ellis trophy. Despite a poor Rugby Championship, South Africa remain in a position to go all the way in this tournament. The most dangerous thing you can do is write off a team of Matfield and co.’s calibre.
The third lock on this list of veterans, Matfield has a lot of weight on his shoulders should Jean De Villiers and Duane Vermulen not recover from injury in time. The absence of those two makes Matfield’s job all the more daunting, especially in a physical pool containing Scotland and Samoa. But there is no better figure to follow into battle than the fearsome lock.
He has proven time and time again why he is considered one of the world’s best second rows and like a fine wine, he is getting better with age. Look out for this giant during the tournament as there are no signs of him stopping.