OPINION: Rugby's an unforgiving sport on the old. And by old I mean anyone over 30.
Reach a certain age and there's always some young guy breathing down your neck who's just as big, just as strong, and just as fast who hasn't slogged through a mind-numbing decade of training runs, gym sessions, and team talks.
So even if a youngster in Beauden Barrett saved New Zealand blushes late in the game and sent Naki followers into ecstasy, let's applaud the men at the heart of the All Blacks backline last night in New Plymouth, the trio of 31-year-olds, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, and Conrad Smith, for the spring that's still in their steps.
Nonu's written off every year, Carter seems to begin every big game by offering an obligatory charge-down, and Smith is that rare beast, a professional player with genuine academic qualifications, not a degree in sport hydration marketing. Here's the trick.
Carter has a spooky ability to keep on playing as if nothing bad has ever happened. Nonu always finds his mojo, and behind that law degree of Smith's lurks a kid who loves rough and tumble to get rougher and rougher.
Talking about young guys at your shoulder, the All Blacks were playing a French team so fresh faced there were hints of the 1986 Baby Blacks.
If you can recall that side, against all expectations, tipped over the French.
And despite the nickname, the Baby Blacks didn't just have players barely out of school. They introduced, amongst others, a veteran like Joe Stanley, who went on to a fantastic test career. As a prime example of a similar situation in the French team, please step forward Antonie Claassen, 28 years old, but playing just his fifth test for France. If he looks like an identikit South African No 8, that's because by birth and upbringing, he is. His father, Wynand, was the South African captain on the infamous 1981 tour of New Zealand and Antonie is a bigger, more bruising version of his old man. In most respects, as demonstrated by Claassen, last night's French side had more grit than the team that played last week.
In response to a true challenge, that had All Blacks selector Grant Fox muttering, "we're in a dogfight" at halftime, the vets played a game designed to frustrate and disarm the French.
Playing shrewdly for position is second nature to Carter, and he was the person doing most of the steering of the All Blacks around the field.
So why did it take 35 minutes for the tactics to pay off with Ben Smith's try? Why did the game stay for so very long largely in the balance?
Because while this isn't a French team laden with legends of the game, they are a way better side on the field than on paper.
The end of the world tries the All Blacks scored in Christchurch didn't come without a swag of gritty effort before the passes stuck, the angles clicked, and the blistering speed players like Ben Smith offered shot them into open spaces.
If Conrad Smith had scored just before halftime the try deluge from last weekend might have revisited the game last night.
But this time, the dramatic breakthrough never really came. Would younger, fresher players have done better? I don't think so. If younger muscles and sinews have the edge over creakier versions, older guys have the huge benefit of having stared down a lot of sporting barrels before.
So it's no coincidence that, when the French discipline cracked in the last 10 minutes, and Yoann Maestri was binned, it was Carter, in his 95th All Blacks test, who nailed his toughest penalty of the night.
In a dogfight it's handy to have a few old road dogs on hand.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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