Golden oldies prove quality can be lasting

A band of old timers are ready to prove that Super League is not only a sport for the youngsters. John Ledger picks his best of the older and younger generations.

IT has become one of the most frequently heard phrases of the Super League era, a summertime cliche which, in many respects, is very much true: rugby league really is a young man's game.

Stand near the touchline before kick off at most grounds this summer and it will be hard to differentiate between some of the players going through their pre-match warm-up and the ball boys playing touch and pass on the sidelines.

But take a closer look at the track-suited figures doing stretching exercises and you'll see that in and amongst the fresh-faced kids with wet-gelled locks there are more mature figures with white highlights running through their hair.

For all the wealth of talent that is graduating through the Academy ranks at clubs such as Leeds, St Helens, Hull and Bradford, Super League has not lost sight of the value of grey big forwards and silver backs.

The days when players pushing 40 were able to cut it at the highest level, as did the likes of Clive Sullivan, Jeff Grayshon and Terry Clawson, are long gone but there remains an important role for thirtysomethings at most clubs.

Only last year, Castleford counted 38-year-old scrum-half Brad Davis among their number, a feat which is likely to see the Australian retain the record as Super League's most senior citizen for many years to come.

The oldest player in engage Super League XII – officially at least – will be Warrington's New Zealand prop Paul Rauhihi, who celebrates his 34th birthday in July, just a couple of months before Catalans Dragons' new signing Jason Croker reaches the same milestone.

There remains a great debate over the actual age of Stanley Gene, the veteran Papua New Guinea international whose English career has come full circle following his return to Hull Kingston Rovers, where it all started back in 1997.

Gene's date of birth on his registration at the RFL in 1997 was May 11, 1974 but according to this year's registration the former Hull, Huddersfield and Bradford utility player claims to have been born in 1975.

Of course it could just be the fact that Gene's craggy countenance makes him look older than his years, as was the case with his fellow countryman and ex-Bradford team-mate Marcus Bai, who announced his retirement at 34 last December.

Historically, forwards have enjoyed greater career longevity but that situation came from an era when it was rare for any top club to provide regular first team employ to a prop in his early 20s. Nowadays players like Stuart Fielden, Garreth Carvell and Ryan Bailey have become front row features since their teenage years, a trend which is likely to continue given the punishing nature of the high speed collisions that are an inherent part of the summer game.

It is rare for forwards to continue playing in Super League past their 30th birthday, especially so for English forwards. The oldest Englishmen who will pack down this season are St Helens hooker Keiron Cunningham (31 in October), his team-mate Paul Sculthorpe (30 in September) and Adrian Morley (30 in May). Cunningham is just a couple of months older than Bradford's new signing Nathan McAvoy, who is the only Englishman in our notional "Old Boys XIII" team of senior players selected by position for 2007.

Indeed when the new season kicked off last night there were just five English players who had entered their fourth decade – Cunningham, McAvoy, Iestyn Harris (31 in June), Sean Long (31 in September) and Paul Reilly (31 in May).

Super League clubs have long relied on experienced Antipodean talent to provide the steadying influence to their home-spun youngsters and there is little doubt that players like Richard Swain at Hull, Bradford's Chris McKenna and Robbie Paul over at Huddersfield Giants make great contributions.

However, the preponderance of ageing overseas talent gives a glaring insight into the difference in playing standards between Super League and the National Rugby League in Australia.

Great Britain prop Morley has returned to finish his career in England after being offered a three-year contract with the option of a fourth season by Warrington Wolves. The former Leeds forward had spent six years at Sydney Roosters who were only prepared to offer the 29-year-old a one-year contract.

Mark O'Neill, who has joined Hull Kingston Rovers following an injury-blighted season at Leeds last summer, turned down a chance to join the coaching staff at Wests Tigers to fly to England. Wests had told the then 30-year-old they regarded him as being too old to merit a playing contract.

That veteran Australians can extend their careers in Super League goes some way towards explaining Great Britain's continued poor showing in the Test arena but it would be wrong to blame the players for the problem because they are merely a symptom. And in the case of Stacey Jones, Matt Sing and Richard Swain, a symptom worth paying good money to watch.