Veteran players make impact felt in Mitre 10 Cup


Older players have returned en masse to play in the Mitre 10 Cup at unprecedented levels.


They, collectively, have enlivened the domestic competition in a time of need. Whether their motivation was the haven New Zealand offered from Covid, or they felt the time was right to return home and play their last season or two on familiar ground, it has been welcome.


For several seasons, the average age of participants appeared to be diminishing as the provincial competition became a stepping stone from schools rugby to professional contracts with club rugby suffering as a consequence. That latter path still existed but in a reduced fashion.


The returning players have also contributed to much closer competition in both the Premiership and Championship.

While none could claim to have retained the dash that marked their careers when in their prime, they have demonstrated that it is not all about flash and dash. There is much to be said for solid hands to set examples, whether that is in on-field action or probably most likely in off-field situations.


Now that rugby in New Zealand has become an established professional pathway, the memories of the amateur era have diminished at the higher levels of the game, but they are as important as ever at the game's grassroots.


One of the great qualities of the New Zealand game was the way information and expertise passed from one generation to another. But with less experienced players starting to dominate in the provincial championship, it is fair to say that institutional knowledge was lacking, and coaches, especially away from the main centres but not entirely, were having to reinvent the wheel to get their players up to speed.


That created issues for player development as coaches would prefer to be operating at a higher level rather than having to work through lower-level requirements for new players.


Older players returning lifted some of that burden as their attitudes set an example that younger players would otherwise take a season or three longer to understand.

Consider some of those who have been seen around the competition this year.


Southland's Jason Rutledge, 42, was an early example. He came into the side, clearly as a replacement hooker but when he stepped up, he had 138 games for Southland behind him and 59 for the Highlanders.


Otago did even better. They had prop Jamie Mackintosh, 35, (Southland 123, Highlanders 67, Chiefs 22), lock Josh Hohneck, 34, (BOP 40, Waikato 26, Highlanders 33, Chiefs 18, Gloucester 101) and No8 Nasi Manu, 32, (Canterbury 72, Crusaders 16, Highlanders 65, Edinburgh 16 Benetton 14) available at various stages.


Northland had called on centre Rene Ranger for several seasons, and although still only 34 after making his Northland debut in 2006, he had 88 for the province, 76 for the Blues and 38 for Montpellier 38.


Tasman pulled in lock Alex Ainley, 39, with 100 games for the Union, 38 games for the Highlanders and eight for Bay of Plenty 8. Lock Isaac Ross, 36, had earlier played 53 games for Canterbury, 23 for the Crusaders, nine for the Highlanders, 11 for the Chiefs and 89 for the NTT Shining Arcs in Japan. Midfield back Kieron Fonotia, 32, had 69 games for Tasman, 40 for the Crusaders, 41 for the Ospreys, 27 for the Scarlets and 12 Tests for Samoa.


More recently, Hawke's Bay called on prop Sona Taumalolo, 38, who had 45 games for Hawke's Bay, 52 for the Chiefs, 52 for Perpignan, three for Racing, 36 for Grenoble and 20 Tests for Tonga.


Wellington's Julian Savea at 30 could still be regarded as being in his prime and joined the Wellington with 32 earlier games behind him as well as 116 for the Hurricanes and 40 for Toulon.


Not to be outdone, Waikato had flanker Liam Messam, 36, and with 85 games for Waikato, 179 games for the Chiefs, 16 for Toshiba and more for Toulon, that was too good to miss.


Flanker Adam Thomson, 38, has had some well-publicised scrapes with his health. But he has made up for lost time in Super Rugby in Australia and with Waikato. He was another with plenty to offer. He had 62 games for Otago, 67 for the Highlanders, five for the Chiefs, 46 for the Canon Eagles, 15 for the Reds, 13 for the Rebels and 10 for the Green Rockets.


Counties Manukau had the services of the former All Black captain Kieran Read, 35, for part of the season with 37 games for Canterbury and Crusaders 156. And like Mackintosh, Ranger, Ross, Messam, Thomson and Savea, there were varying levels of exposure to international play.


However you look at it, that is more experience than has been seen in New Zealand provincial play for many years, and it is not only the sides they play for who benefit but those who oppose them.


One of the points of interest in the next few seasons will be to observe how much impact they have had by setting examples to their younger team-mates in a highly-competitive Mitre 10 Cup in 2020.