Scott Sattler must be the most popular man in the retirement home. I can only guess that he bought himself a supercharged walking stick- how could the old man have caught Rooster?s winger Todd Byrne in one of the great grand-final tackles on Sunday? He even got a chance to flash his new dentures- the Panther geriatric couldn?t wipe the smile off his face when his boys defeated Grandpa Fittler?s men.
At 30 Sattler isn?t quite rugby league?s Methuselah yet, but he?s certainly getting on in years. Rugby league has never been an old mans game. The value of experience is unquestionable, but relative experience is often achieved by the time a player is 25. Andrew Gee, at 33, was the oldest man in this year?s NRL, and certainly looked the part. It?s safe to say that rugby league doesn?t do much for a young mans looks, and most ?old heads? end a 10 year career looking like 30 going on 70. Compare photos of Geoff Toovey aged 20 versus Toovey aged 30 and you?ll see what I mean.
However, the ?old? heads have played a famous part in the game?s history. Arthur Beetson enjoyed a long and glorious career, but ironically is probably best known by the younger generation for captaining Queensland in the inaugural State of Origin match as an ancient relic of 35. The youngster in that 1980 team was Mal Meninga, and he was still good enough to earn a Kangaroo jumper in 1994, aged 34. Allan Langer returned from England in 2001 to help out Queensland in the last match of the Origin series, and turned in a vintage performance in a crushing Maroon victory. He was even filled with enough youthful enthusiasm to return to the NRL in 2002, where he enjoyed an excellent season at the age of 36.
In this year?s NRL there was an influx of young players. In Keith Galloway and Reece Williams, Cronulla had the unusual distinction of playing two schoolboys at the same time. Thomas Leuluai debuted for the Warriors at 17 and schoolboy Benji Marshall was heralded as the games next superstar by Tigers fans. The Panthers won the premiership on the back of strong performances by the likes of Joel Clinton, Trent Waterhouse, Luke Rooney, and Luke Lewis, while 20-year-old rookie Billy Slater was a standout.
However, the naming of the Kiwi and Kangaroo squads proves there?s hope yet for the 30 plus brigade. 31-year-old Ryan Girdler?s return from injury has seen him display all his trademark pace and skill. It could be argued that, as a centre, Girdler has ample chance to age gracefully and protect his decrepit, frail body, although Luke Ricketson (30) seems to refute this theory. Ricketson is arguably the hardest working back-rower in the NRL, and yet has managed to maintain an image as one the games pretty boys. In fact, Ricketson bucks trends all round- how many hardworking back rowers make their test debut at the age of 30 and still look (almost) as pretty as they did 10 years earlier? Robbie Kearns, who is fast approaching 32, has also struck a rich vein of form and is the Kangaroo vice-captain. Kiwi captain Ruben Wiki has enjoyed the season of a lifetime at age 30, and then there?s Paul Rauhihi, who somehow went from an occasional impact player, to a Kiwi international and one of the NRL?s best props, at age 29.
Scott Sattler is unlikely to ever scale such heady heights, but he?s receiving a very nice pension from the West Tigers next year on the strength of his recent efforts. Ricketson, Wiki, and Kearns show no signs of slowing down, but life isn?t one big trip to the RSA for all the old-timers. Brad Fittler had a great season but a shoulder injury seemed to hinder him during the finals series, and one wonders whether he will return as the same player in 2004. Gordon Tallis, 30, largely failed to impress after giving Ben Ross a slap around the ears for not respecting his elders. Jerry SeuSeu seems to have hit the wall (and probably broken his hip doing it) at age 29. Rugby league is a young mans game where the young become old prematurely. While a fortunate few will enjoy renewed respect and credibility on the field after 30, most will be on the downward slide. Players need to get in early if they want to make the most of their careers.
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