Keven Mealamu, at 36, is the oldest player in contention for World Cup duty.
Keven Mealamu, at 36, is the oldest player in contention for World Cup duty. Greg Bowler

OPINION: Are the All Blacks too old?

REMEMBER the uproar about the ageing All Blacks amid the ruins of their 1991 World Cup defence.

They were "up themselves", "down on harmony and over the hill". Accusations were nasty, personal and on many fronts were embarrassing as the nation pulled the rug out from underneath rugby.

They were different times and it is reassuring that much of that redneck antagonism has been replaced.

Since '91, the game has gone professional, conditioning work has improved out of sight and know-how, rather than age markers, is seen as an advantage rather than a handbrake.

Experience has a lofty value when teams are placed into high-stakes competition or sudden-death scenarios as they are at World Cups.

As long as players want to be involved and can meet the physical levels demanded by their coaches, no one will look at their birth certificates.

Revisiting profiles from the 1991 World Cup, you find that none of the original backs and only six forwards were beyond 30, with twins Gary and Alan Whetton the senior statesmen at 31.

More than 12 players in the mix for an All Black spot at this year's event will be older than the Whettons who had Richard Loe, Andy Earl, Graham Purvis and Steve McDowell for senior company.

Grant Fox was the oldest back among the All Blacks until Kieran Crowley, who had just turned 30, was called up as an injury replacement.

This season six possible backs - Conrad Smith, Cory Jane, Sonny Bill Williams, Ma'a Nonu, Daniel Carter and Andy Ellis - will have gone past three decades like forward contenders Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw, Liam Messam, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks and Keven Mealamu.

Grand-daddy of them all is Mealamu who crested 36 in March and plans to add even more caps to the 123 he has gathered in his remarkable career.

Next is captain Richie McCaw who will blow out 35 candles on New Year's Eve followed by Conrad Smith who will be 34 in the middle of the tournament.

This season, all three look to be slowing and having less impact on matches. That's less impact than the usual high-calibre contributions from McCaw, Smith and Mealamu, so their performance is still at a level which will cope with most international opposition.

Before their fitness advisers flourish sheets of statistics to prove the trio are as sharp as ever, I'd argue their impact is not as consistently spikey as it's been.

That's the tradeoff.

They have all the experience to rely on as they absorb and react in an 80 minute game.

They're all leaders in their departments and the cool minds in the fury of battle.

It's whether their bodies respond as quickly and relentlessly as they always did and how conditions, the opposition and match officials interfere with what we took for granted.

- NZ Herald

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