When is experience just age?
This season Jason Smith will defy all sporting logic and play his final season of top flight rugby league at the ripe old age of 34. Newspaper journos and commentators will refer to him as a veteran and persistently discuss his experience as an asset, as he can pass on advice to younger players and most likely stay calm under pressure. Simularly Craig Smith will continue to back up week in week out for the Knights, giving their younger forwards invaluable advice and inspiration. These players follow the traditions established by previous �specialist� old-timers such as Kevin Campion and Darren Smith.
While it�s a well established fact that rugby league teams benefit from having players with a wealth of experience on board, most people acknowledge that such players must be included sparingly and strategically into the teams. A team with a majority of 30+ players runs the risk of lacking energy, youthful exhuberance and being more susceptable to losing players through recurring injuries.
Which brings me to the Kangaroos team that has been selected for this Friday�s Bundy Rum Test. Before looking at the team we must consider their recent performances (or as recent as last November�s Tri-Nations can be). After enjoying several years of regular success the incoming Australian team holds the unwanted title of being the first Kangaroo team to lose a test series since 1978. And I don�t need to remind you that this loss wasn�t a closely fought tussle, with the team losing to New Zealand 24-0 in the final.
So the selectors had an important question to consider this week: Do they stick with a losing but established team, or risk introducing fresh talent? Many will argue that, while Australia did lose last years Tri-Nations they did so while winning the majority of their games including a 20-6 defeat of Great Britain. The Kangaroos are also a team that performs best playing at home.
However a key factor that must be considered is the �experience� of some of the squad members. While not at all questioning the commitment or ability of any of the players in the Australian team, some are getting on a bit in age. Pietro Civoniceva turns 30 this year and has endured 175 gruelling games of top grade football. Steven Menzies is 33 this year and is at the point in his career where he is considering �retiring� to the greener pastures of the UK Super League. Ben Kennedy has already announced he will retire this season and has been remarkably non-commital when asked about the upcoming representative campaign. When quizzed by Ray Hadley on Sunday, BK claimed that he believed he simply was too old to play a full State of Origin series this season. While his experience will be appreciated in the Kangaroo side on Friday, such an attitude will surely not be useful in the lead up to a high intensity test.
Importantly when analysing the merits of selecting multiple 30+ players for rep duty, we must consider not how the team will perform right now, but how they will look in 1 or 2 years time. Australian selectors have taken some chances by including Karmichael Hunt, Jonathon Thurston and Luke O�Donnell, but their forward pack does still seem like a close-to-retirement home. And they haven�t made anywhere near as many youthful selections as NZ, who have included Tame Tupou (23 years old), Sonny-Bill Williams (21), David Faiumu (23), Louis Anderson (21), Benji Marshall (21), David Fa�alogo (26), Jake Webster (23), Thomas Leuluai (21) and Frank Pritchard (23). Admittedly the New Zealand team has always lacked depth, meaning they have regularly been forced to blood players at a younger age. But will this be a weakness that will ultimately be to the Kiwi team�s advantage?
Sure the team may lose Friday�s Bundy Rum Test, they may even struggle during the end of seasons Tri-Nations. But it might be worth blooding some young talent, copping a few losses and ultimately ruling the Rugby League Universe for years to come.