Two juvenile fingers

Is there something of a movement going on? Are sportsmen and women really not seeing age as a factor? Is sport moving towards the concept that experience is not as important as ability? Let’s look at some recent evidence.

Football: last weekend we had a debut for one of the youngest Premier League footballers. Here’s an extract from the official website – “Aged 16 years and 236 days, Reece Oxford (playing for West Ham) became the second-youngest starter in BPL history at Emirates Stadium and carried out the midfield holding role with the calm composure of a veteran.” The record holder is Jose Baxter for Everton in 2008 at 16 and 191 days. Rooney is third on the list incidentally, again for Everton. There’s a joke there about youth and the city of Liverpool. I’m not going to make it though. You’re on your own. But fancy not being old enough to drive and yet being able to boss the midfield of a team who buy Ferraris for fun?

Cricket: just before the Ashes got under way, we heard from countless knowledgeable sources that Australia had experience and proven game winners. England lacked know-how in key areas; Stokes, Wood, Buttler, Bairstow, Ali. They hadn’t played under this sort of pressure previously so victory was unlikely. You wouldn’t find players with the standing of Australia’s top order flashing at balls outside off when the going gets tough. 

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Golf: you know where this is going. Augusta, Georgia; springtime and azaleas and ‘this course will eat up the naïve’ and ‘no one comes here fresh out the box and starts playing that sort of golf’. No, they do. At just 21 years old, Jordan Spieth stuck two juvenile fingers up at the premise that knocking a ball in to a hole 500 yards away gets easier with age. Weeks later, with the Masters’ green jacket stored safely in his wardrobe, he marched around a course that had wizened old pros weeping into their tour bags, and promptly won the U.S. Open. Just in case you thought he’d fluked it.

Rugby: this week, Warren Gatland cut Mike Phillips, James Hook and Richard Hibbard from his Wales squad for the Rugby World Cup. 218 international test caps worth of ‘I’ve done it before’ put to one side. Phillips has 99 test caps including two tours with the British & Irish Lions. The remaining scrum halves in Wales’ squad have 36 caps between them. Gatland, it seems, is happy to go for form over experience. And it leaves me asking, why not?

This past few years rugby has seen an increase in young bucks catching the eye. Premiership teams are now more than happy to push youth to the front line. Names like Ford, Slade, Cowan Dickie, Itoje, Purdy, Watson, Clifford have become synonymous with first XV team sheets despite the oldest being just 22. Even the front row, a long-time bastion of the venerable, has had to accommodate adolescence. I can inform you that some international prop forwards were born in the 1990s.

Conditioning has helped. No doubt the size of these young chaps allows them to hold their own. We are also spoilt in England with the quality of the academies. Good rugby players are looked after and developed so well, and from such a young age, that when they arrive in Premiership squads they have all the shape and skillsets you need to survive. The science around the game has improved so they are able to analyse the sport and learn their craft that little bit quicker. Add the correct diet and nutrition and these lads are seriously making up for time not spent playing.

Ironically, injury has played a role. The size and speed of the modern day player has contributed to a more attritional game and as such, players are getting injured more regularly, giving valuable opportunity to the youth. In the 2010/11 season Owen Farrell (aged 19) got a chance in the Sarries first team because of a long term injury to Derrick Hougaard. Staying with Saracens, would Jamie George be in the reckoning for England had Schalk Brits stayed fit? And there are countless more examples in teams around the world; injury layoffs can play their part.

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However, all of that said. When you start to throw this panicky discussion around the bar room, you are thankfully reassured. One of the reasons these kids are so good at rugby is because of the influence of the experienced. Changing rooms still contain older voices, those willing to spend time with the ‘callow’ and pass on their knowledge. Because of physicality, health and injury to others the opportunity arises, but the input to those young players during that opportunity comes from them that ‘own the t-shirt’. Rugby blends that knowledge so well.

And I am hopeful that the World Cup will show us that there is no real substitute for having ‘been there and done that’. The best team in the world has a core of experienced operators; McCaw, Nonu, Carter, Read, Woodcock, Mealamu, Conrad Smith. I’m expecting rugby’s showpiece tournament to quash this apparent uprising of fledgling youth. Come November we’ll discover that experience is as important as ability and physical prowess. At least I hope we do. Being old is the only thing I have going for me.

Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved. 

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