The game of rugby league has often been referred to as a ‘young man’s game’.
However, with so many players playing well into (and well in) their 30, does this idiom actually hold water?
According to the NRL, the average career length for a professional league player is said to be around three to four seasons – 43 games to be exact. With the vast majority of these footballers beginning their careers in their early 20s, many are forced into other lines of work well before 30 candles are lit atop their birthday cake.
Nevertheless, there are currently 60 players plying their trade in the NRL this season that are aged 30 and over. With this weekend’s reintroduction of Sonny Bill Williams into the Roosters lineup and pages left to turn on the calendar, this number is only set to rise.
This former leak has progressed to deluge status.
So what are the reasons for this current inclination? Also, will this trend continue or will it fade out of fashion like bellbottoms and Barry Manilow tunes?
There are numerous reasons credited for this rise, but none mystifies the masses more than the implementation and improvement of sports science.
Although we often hear this term uttered by the game’s many talking heads, we are regularly at a loss as to what the discipline actually involves.
With so many of our greatest stars inching towards greying, we sought to peel back the layers of ambiguity and misinterpretation to provide you with some answers as to why Zimmer frames may eventually become de rigueur for NRL players.
The science of the matter
According to Sports Medicine Australia, Rugby league is a highly physical contact sport. The many rigorous demands of the game involve accelerating, decelerating, changing direction, tackling, passing, kicking and catching.
Bear in mind this is all done at near maximum velocity the 13 players on each side.
At the elite NRL level, there are a myriad of off-field roles designed to improve player’s on-field performances. Troy Thomson, the high-performance manager for the Kangaroos, believes that NRL clubs and their sports science teams set the benchmark for the rest of the world.
“Australian NRL clubs are very, very good in terms of their sports science and probably lead the world from that point of view.”
But what does the field of study actually entail?
Across the NRL, and other codes for that matter, sports science specialists at each club are tasked with a plethora of responsibilities that consist of:
- Introducing tailored training schedules
- Collecting and analysing GPS data
- Beginning and maintaining injury prevention and rehabilitation programs
- Implementing recovery courses (including the dreaded ice bath)
Courses also undertaken at Rugby League’s elite level include: velocity based weight training, sweat and synaptic testing and biomechanical readings that allow for instant feedback.
As these programs are personalised, they consider a player’s age, body shape and role in the game.
Already we can see that NRL players are not like the general population. With the ability to focus solely on their high paying job and with so many trained professionals at their beck and call free of charge, it has theoretically never been easier to remain fit and injury free.
But how do these programs specifically allow for so many athlete’s careers to continue past 30?
American journalist Jeff Bercovici believes he has the answers.
In his 2018 book ‘Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age’, Bercovici introduces the notion of ‘peak age’. This is the supposed period in which athletes are at their most likely to succeed.
After meticulous research, this window of opportunity is said to arrive and remain open in the latter portions of athletic careers, citing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Tom Brady as prime examples. It is said that their collective experience and maturity across many situations allow for their individual successes.
The San Francisco based scribe also states that when athletes age, their bodies get worse at rejuvenating and repairing themselves.
New research into fatigue, and the implementation of technology to monitor it, allows for players to minimise their risk of injury and thus prolong their careers.
Further research conducted by Peter Keir, a professor of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, corroborates Bercovici’s contention.
Keir, like Bercovici, points out that the biggest factors in athlete’s career lengths are that as they age, it is smarter play, not harder or faster, that allows for their careers to continue.
The Canadian academic also contests that the intangible and immeasurable elements of ‘luck and mindset’ play a part in longevity.
Keir is additionally emphatic that competitors who play in low contact positions and conditions are almost certainly the most likely to play past standard use by dates.
Now this may be well and good for those that wield a racket or play clad in armour, but Rugby League is a game that involves eighty minutes’ worth of collisions that have similar g-force readings to small car accidents.
We must now look at research conducted closer to home to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
In their 2014 publication titled Applied Sports Science of Rugby League, Australian Catholic University sports medicine scholar, Dr. Richard Johnston and eminent sports scientist, Dr. Tim Gabbett focused the microscope entirely on the thirteen-man code.
In an effort to shine a light on sports sciences benefits for Rugby League footballers, their research looked at six key elements:
- Physical demands imposed on Rugby League players
- Physical qualities of the athletes involved
- Physiological responses made during match-play
- Technical skills of the players
- Performance and injury relating to the footballer’s physical qualities
- Post-match fatigue
This inquiry produced a few conclusions that, when translated in layman’s terms, read as such.
Firstly, when playing standards of the game rise, so to do the demands imposed on its players.
Secondly, winning in the NRL is reliant upon greater match intensities and repeat efforts.
In accordance with these two findings, the pair also suggest that players need to have well developed physical qualities and allow for sufficient time to recover to maintain these playing performances.
These results suggest that the players at Rugby League’s elite level that are best suited to succeed are in fact the elder statesmen. This is due to their experience in a multitude of situations on and off the field and their newfound ability to train smarter and not harder.
A young man’s game, you say? Think again.
This trio of rulings are based upon performance and preparation of league players as a collective. However, the New Zealand Warriors recruitment manager, Peter O’Sullivan, will no doubt contest their applicability to every NRL Player.
O’Sullivan, the man credited with the recruitment of the Melbourne Storm’s ‘big three’, had this to say earlier in the year when questioned about performance and preparation:
“There’s rules for everyone and then there’s Cameron Smith.”
This piece has not been specifically designed to speak only of Smith and his longevity, but at the age of 37 and still seen by many as the best current performer in the NRL, he naturally becomes the iconic representation and benchmark for every league player 30 and older.
In an interview earlier this year with NRL.COM senior reporter Brad Walter, leading sports science enactor Troy Thomson credited the Storm hooker with working harder than anybody else in league.
“As much as he probably wouldn’t like to admit it he is one of the best trainers I have known,” Thomson said. “He is not the strongest, but his core is by far the strongest I have ever seen so his ability to just control everything through the middle part of his body is exceptional.
“Genetics plays a really big part in it and I think he is blessed with some really good genes but from Smithy’s point of view he is probably the most well-prepared player, as well as being a really, really good footballer, who has been in and around really good programs for his entire career.”
However, the Kangaroo’s high-performance manager also makes it clear that it is more than just a regime based upon repetition and accountability that has allowed ‘the big three’ to spend so much time on the field.
“The thing I notice with guys like that is they just have this innate ability on the field to see things before anyone else can and to avoid situations where they are going to get injured as well,” Thomson said.
“I have been lucky enough to stand in behind those guys over so many years and see them play and you look and you think ‘he’s going to get smashed here’ but they just have this ability to turn their body or get themselves in a position where the impact or the severity of the collision is nowhere near what it could have been.”
Fellow 300-gamer Steve ‘Beaver’ Menzies echoed Thomson’s views on Smith’s innate abilities.
“Cam Smith has always had the ability to see things before other people see them or sense them. He is world class at everything like that.
It is plainly clear to anyone that has ever seen Cameron Smith in action that he is a step ahead of his opponents both off and on the field.
This is gap has been created to due a mixture of high standard, fastidious preparations, an inability to accept second best and an ability to change his habits.
Now closer to 40 rather than 30, Smith doubtlessly acts as not just a beacon of hope, but a model example for the other sixty tricenarians still on NRL rosters.
Kicking the habit
As found in the research by Johnston and Gabbett, NRL players must have an above average fitness base to be able to succeed in the competition.
In the past, cans of beer and cigarettes were as a part of match day for players as liniment oil and a numbered jersey.
Recently, there has been a shift away from this counterproductive culture, due in no small part to the total professionalism of the competition.
No longer do players dig ditches from Monday to Friday. The vast majority of their time is spent preparing their body and mind for the eighty minutes of attrition the endure once a week.
Contemporarily, players spend more time within the four walls of the club than ever before. Due to these long days of meetings and training, eating meals as a collective has become the norm.
These meals are not prepared by the players themselves, but rather by professional chefs and volunteers under the watchful eyes and specifications of the dieticians.
Chloe McLeod and Jess Spendlove are sports dieticians that work with both Parramatta and Cronulla. They state that their main focus is “ensuring all players are adequately fuelled before a game with enough energy to perform.”
The pair have helped also helped close the door on the culinary experiences of the past, by steering the Eels and the Sharks away from the bain-marie.
In the past decade, the NRL has also implemented an alcohol management strategy devised by the Australian Drug Foundation in an effort to curb alcohol related incidents.
So gone are the serves of Friday night fish and chips, gone too are the skinfuls of grog consumed in the sheds.
You’re also highly unlikely to see many players with a pack a day habit like Cliff Lyons either.
It is true that a healthy diet, in conjunction with the benefits provided by sports science, can add years to a footballer’s career. Nevertheless, they are not the only factors halting many from hanging the boots up.
Adapting and advancing
Since the dawn of the NRL era in 1998, there have been many changes to the state of the game.
Previously championed defensive ploys like the shoulder charge, crusher tackle and the ‘clothesline’ have become acts that evoke admonishment and punishment in the contemporary game.
With the introduction of the HIA (Head Injury Assessment), the NRL has followed other code’s lead in seeking to protect their greatest asset’s health by making the head sacrosanct.
It isn’t just the rules and off-field culture of the game that has adapted with the times. So too have the players.
When asked about player longevity earlier this year by Brad Walter, the evergreen Steve Menzies had this to say:
“You might be two yards slower but your anticipation is better so you can take off five steps before a young bloke knows to leave because you can sense or see or feel where you need to be before they do because of experience.”
Walter also spoke to Canberra Raiders recruitment manager, Peter Mulholland who echoed Bercovici’s contention that players were reaching their ‘peak age’ later in their careers.
“I don’t look strategically at age. It’s a late-maturing sport to start with. People used to say, ‘you’ve turned 30, you have got to retire’, but that’s a load of shit.”
“I think the changes in training, medical science and performance management has enabled people to play longer.
Once again, smarter, not harder.
Lightening the load
Despite the fact that it is a key factor in allowing their careers to continue, players despite it.
Former Houston Rockets and New York Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy labelled the ploy an Australian invention.
Since the trust in sports science measures have grown due to the results they yield, further adaptations that wouldn’t have flown in the past have recently been implemented.
I speak of course about the ploy of load management or put technically, the practice of monitoring physiological stress.
Unlike yesteryear, players are no longer forced to play whilst hurt. Routinely, we see them sitting on the bench, clad in tracksuit tops with ice attached to minor ailments instead of being hit with the magic spray and hidden in the forward pocket.
These players often used to retain their place in the team for the next week, but in recent seasons, doctors have erred on the side of caution, preferring instead to play the long game.
The attachment of the term ‘managed’ next to a player that has missed selection is now as ubiquitous as those of ‘injured’ and ‘omitted’.
Load management may not be as prevalent in Australia as it is around the globe, due in no small part to less rigorous fixturing demands, still it is regularly implemented by teams as a tool to preserve the fitness of their youngest and oldest players.
Aforementioned sports scientist Dr. Tim Gabbett believes that a balance must be struck between rest and play.
Gabbett claims that “Load Management has to be about making players available more often – and making them available in the best shape possible.”
He does contend though that rather than focusing on how long and how often players are on the field for, the attention needs to be shifted to the quality and quantity of the time spent preparing for these playing minutes.
Gabbett does acknowledge that the practice is not entirely foolproof.
“Good load management minimises injury by bringing players safely to their peak performance. But even the best training programs cannot eliminate injuries all together, nor can they predict them with perfect accuracy.”
Although an inexact science at the best of times, it must be noted that clubs nationwide have access to technology that has the ability to measure muscle imbalances and perform body composition scans in an effort to reduce and predict injuries.
Despite being hotly debated across a range of codes and wildly misunderstood by fans in the stands, when you next see an ageing veteran from your favourite team sidelined for what seems to be no particular reason, just know there is method to the madness.
The refusal to hang them up
If Cameron Smith does play on in 2021, he will eventually break Paul Gallen’s record as the oldest player in the NRL era.
With a plethora of premiership rings, a myriad of origin triumphs, as well as twenty Dally M award victories to his name, why is it that Smith wants to keep going? What is it that he feels he has left to achieve?
Once footballers begin playing past the age of 30, they have usually achieved such accolades in the game and are seen as ornaments of their respective clubs.
This level of clout often allows players the right to ‘go out on their own terms’ and retire when they best see fit.
However, with player wages at an all-time high, the ability to bask in the public limelight and an outlet for their invariably competitive natures, it is unsurprising that so many are desperate to keep pushing the sunset back into the sky.
Sadly, we can’t stay young forever and the rest of our lives come calling. Footballers are often at a loss with how to operate in standard society once the final siren sounds. ‘Post playing blues’ set in and their competitive natures can’t be satisfied with a family trip to the bowling alley.
Even though footballers are remunerated handsomely for, in essence, playing a game, it is not simply physical fatigue that can bring careers to untimely closes.
The issues of stress, anxiety and depression can affect even the strongest and richest athletes. We need look no further than Greg Inglis’ recent divulgence of the affects they had on not just his career, but his life in general.
Hall of fame baseball catcher Carlton ‘Pudge’ Fisk summarised this panic best in an interview prior to his eventual retirement.
“I’m afraid to leave the game because I’m afraid there’s nothing out there for me. I have no burning desire to do anything else. Baseball has been so much of my life. Will anything else be that rewarding?”
Fisk’s fears are not at all uncommon amongst athletes. However, these negative emotions are often used by ageing competitors as motivation.
Kinesiologist, Peter Keir claims that it is an unyielding stubbornness that keeps so many players motivated past 30.
“A lot of it is, for a lack of a better term, old fashioned stubbornness. [These athletes] are going to stay on top as long as they can.”
“I think that plays a huge role in the desire to stay there and work as hard.”
With clubs more willing to sign veterans to single year contracts, these mule-like old timers are afforded the opportunity to scratch their competitive itches whilst planning for life after football. All the while still studded boots still on their feet.
What does the future hold?
With the figures of contracts rising and players playing and preparing smarter with the benefits of ever evolving sports science aide at hand, it surely won’t be long before we have only the second professional Rugby League player still lacing the boots in their forties.
Now it may not be Cameron Smith that joins Billy Wilson as the game’s only quadragenarian, but punters may be looking to part with their hard earned sooner rather than later should a market arise.
With Smith likely to finally hang the boots up at the end of this season, every fan of the code should appreciate the man destined for immortality before his final set is run.
So, unlike flared jeans and furiously poor soft rock records, this current fashion of remaining forever young looks set to continue.