Paul O'Connell and 20 Rugby Veterans Still Playing at the Highest Level

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

Paul O'Connell and 20 Rugby Veterans Still Playing at the Highest Level

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    At 34 years of age, Paul O'Connell boasts one of the most decorated careers of any rugby professional still playing at the highest level of the sport.

    A three-time British and Irish Lion boasting two Six Nations championships and two Heineken Cup crowns, with Ireland and Munster respectively, the lock has done tremendously well to prolong such heady standards into his twilight years.

    But O'Connell is far from alone, and here we've compiled a list of those more seasoned individuals still managing to teach the younger generation a lesson, despite being a little over that daunting age barrier of 30.

    For clarity, precedence has been given to those players still playing among the world's biggest competitions, such as the Heineken Cup and Super Rugby competitions, and it also helps if a player is still involved with the national team.

    For the most part, a minimum age of 33 has been applied, but there are some exceptions considering age isn't the only factor in making a veteran, with prominence at the elite level for so many years also justifying inclusion.

    Feel free to make some of your own suggestions in the forum below.

1. Brian O'Driscoll, Leinster and Ireland

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    Age: 35

    Starting with the most prevalent case of how to go about the latter years of one's career, Brian O'Driscoll is, and has been for the past six months, the talk of the rugby community.

    After a 15-year career with Leinster and Ireland, the Dubliner is set to hang up his boots, and for many will do so as one of, if not, the best rugby player of his generation.

    With 141 international international Test appearances, O'Driscoll bows out as the most capped rugby player of all time, overcoming the record previously held by Australia's George Gregan.

    During such a glittering career, the iconic No. 13 has toured with the British and Irish Lions on four occasions, showing just how long his quality at the top has been prolonged.

    On top of that, O'Driscoll has won three Heineken Cup with Leinster, two Six Nations titles—including a 2009 Grand Slam—and three Celtic League titles (now the Pro12).

2. Keven Mealamu, Blues and New Zealand

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    Age: 35

    Front-rowers are somehow among those who often manage to make it deep into those recesses of their 30s, but Keven Mealamu's ongoing involvement for both the Blues and New Zealand is something of a miracle.

    Featuring on the best national team the world has to offer is a feat when at one's playing prime, so it makes it all the more impressive that the hooker still justifies his inclusion with the All Blacks at the ripe age of 35.

    After a brief spell with the Chiefs in 2002, Mealamu returned to the Auckland outfit in 2003 and hasn't looked back since, going on to become the most-capped Super Rugby player ever to come from New Zealand.

    The No. 2 is regarded as one of the best-ever to have played in his position and joined an elite club in 2012 by reaching 100 Test caps for the All Blacks, just the third player ever to do so at the time.

3. Gethin Jenkins, Cardiff Blues and Wales

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    Age: 33

    Earlier this year, Gethin Jenkins took a step further into his nation's history books by becoming the most capped Welsh player ever, 105 to his name in total.

    The 33-year-old has made a name for himself as one of the more agile props in his time, able to play at tighthead or loosehead, an asset that's helped him warrant selection for the British and Irish Lions on three occasions, making five Test appearances.

    Apart from a sole season in France with Toulon, Jenkins' most fruitful years have come as a Cardiff Blues player, the club to which he returned earlier this season for a ninth campaign.

4. Richie McCaw, Crusaders and New Zealand

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    Age: 33

    If one were to think of world rugby stars most closely associated with the word "immortal," Richie McCaw may well be the first name coming to mind.

    At 33, Richie isn't the oldest candidate to have made their way on to the list, but so potent and consistently impacting has his time as a Crusaders and All Blacks star been that he's already considered the best flanker ever to have played by many.

    Others would extend that courtesy to claiming that McCaw is outright the best rugby player ever seen, known for applying one of the most capable rugby brains to his game for the last 15 years.

    In his time, McCaw has captained Canterbury, the Crusaders and New Zealand, finally helping lead his national team to Rugby World Cup glory in 2011.

    The most-capped All Black ever, the player's leadership value is evidenced by the fact that McCaw has failed to win just 12 of his 112 international appearances, making for a win ratio of 89 percent, not to mention winning the IRB Player of the Year award a record three times.

5. Nicolas Mas, Montpellier and France

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    Age: 33

    After 14 years as a Perpignan favourite, Nicolas Mas traded Top 14 allegiances to Montpellier in 2013, but the French national team is one commitment that has gone without interruption.

    For some 12 years now, the prop has featured for Les Bleus, albeit not always in the same capacity of importance, but his quality in the role has often set him apart from international counterparts.

    Now looking to help Montpellier cement their status as one of the top teams in Europe, as well as guiding the next generation of French front-row talent through, Mas has another couple of years left at the very top.

6. Jean De Villiers, Stormers and South Africa

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    Age: 33

    Jean De Villiers is in a race against not just time but against his own physical frailty to earn a place in the South Africa squad for the 2015 Rugby Word Cup.

    The Springbok captain's career has been marred by numerous injuries, and if he's to last past the age of 34 at the very top, it's vital that his frame remains intact for the next 18 months.

    One year in Munster colours during the 2009-10 campaign gave European audiences a more intimate look at the centre's fine work, but aside from that, the Stormers and Western Province have managed to hold on to their star's talents for the entirety of his career.

    De Villiers may go down as one of the best outside centres that South Africa, and indeed the world, has ever produced, with many a neutral hoping that he can merely hold it together for one more run at the big time.

7. Pascal Pape, Stade Francais and France

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    Age: 33

    With Thierry Dusautoir out injured for this year's Six Nations championship, Pascal Pape was once again left to fill in as France captain for the tournament, a responsibility he's become more and more familiar with down the years.

    Since 2007, Stade Francais have benefited from the lock's consistently high playing standards, on occasion putting him up there with the very best second rows in the land.

    Pape is another to have seen his involvement with Les Bleus affected somewhat by different coaches, but his impact during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, in which France were beaten in the final by hosts New Zealand, speaks best of precisely what the giant's capable of.

8. Conrad Smith, Hurricanes and New Zealand

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    Age: 32 

    Were one to think of candidates who might pose some challenge to O'Driscoll's claims of being the best outside centre of his generation, New Zealand's Conrad Smith would be the first name most would mention as his main competition for the honour.

    Making his Hurricanes debut in 2004, the bruised and battered veteran recently made his 100th Super Rugby appearance for the franchise, and not at any point have standards looked like slipping.

    Integral to the All Blacks' Rugby World Cup win of 2011, Smith has shown that he has it all in terms of requirements for his position, whether it be defensive nuance, playmaking ability or the penetrative capacity to break lines and construct magic individually.

    The Taranaki native joined some of his compatriots in opting for a sabbatical, his coming in the summer of 2013, and fans of the player can only hope he comes back stronger in time for another run at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

9. Takashi Kikutani, Saracens

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    Age: 34

    Takashi Kikutani may not have been known to the masses of the Northern Hemisphere prior to his move to Saracens in December 2013, but the Japanese No. 8 brought a vast amount of experience to Allianz Park.

    Granted, Kikutani hasn't played a prominent role at the club since initially moving in a training capacity, but the 34-year-old—fourth in Japan's all-time appearances list with 66 caps—is nevertheless a solid option in the back row.

    Prior to his stay in the Aviva Premiership, Kikutani was a long-term staple for Toyota Verblitz for almost a decade, and he flies a strong flag for his nation's claims at producing quality talent.

10. Carl Hayman, Toulon

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    Age: 34

    Yet another example of the temptations posed by the money-maker that is French rugby, Carly Hayman now finds himself plying his trade in the Top 14 at Toulon with the rest of their Southern Hemisphere horde.

    The ex-Newcastle Falcon was at one time in his career regarded as one of the best scrummaging tightheads in the world, and though age has seen that reputation diminish, his side nonetheless benefits greatly from his figure being in the squad.

    Even at 34 years of age, Hayman remains a valued member of Toulon's star-studded line-up, and his most recent exploit was going toe-to-toe with Leinster's Cian Healy in their Heineken Cup quarter-final and holding his own.

    Showing that despite advancing in years, he can still be of great use in Europe's premier tournament, the 45-times capped All Black has a lot to contribute as of yet.

    Hayman's New Zealand career ended upon his 2007 switch to the north-east of England, but the former Highlanders and Otago star remains a well-respected name in his native land.

11. Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon

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    Age: 34

    Of course, this list wouldn't be complete without a mention of England's all-time leading points scorer Jonny Wilkinson—with 1,179 to his name, he clears the rest of the pack by more than 750 points.

    The Daily Mail's Ashley Clements recently reported that Wilkinson would be hanging up his boots at the end of this season, but it speaks volumes that, in his final campaign, the iconic No. 10 is still playing a key role in Toulon's bid to claim back-to-back Heineken Cup medals.

    The one moment which, of course, stands clearest in one's mind with the mention of Wilkinson is the famous drop goal that brought victory for England in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final against Australia.

    However, Wilkinson's career, 11 years of which was spent with Newcastle Falcons, is a far more storied tale than that, one which would require volumes to tell in its entirety.

12. Danie Rossouw, Toulon

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    Age: 35

    Yet another member of that marauding star vehicle Toulon, Danie Rossouw is now enjoying his first full season at the Stade Mayol, having joined midway through the 2012-13 campaign.

    With a two-year jaunt to Japan's Suntory Sungoliath spliced in between, the former Bulls and Springboks star is now back playing among rugby's big guns, proving still to be of some use to the reigning champions of Europe.

    Between 2003 and 2011, the lock made 63 appearances for the South African national team, and though some may feel that tenure ended prematurely, Rossouw remains one of the most decorated players in the game.

    A 2007 Rugby World Cup, three Super Rugby titles, three Currie Cup crowns, one Heineken Cup and a series win over the British and Irish Lions are just the most impressive accolades in his trophy cabinet, and there may yet be more to add.

13. Jamie Cudmore, Clermont Auvergne and Canada

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    Age: 35

    The double-edged sword of Jamie Cudmore standing as very arguably the greatest rugby talent Canada has ever produced is that, because of his talent, the national team haven't really reaped the full benefits of his potential.

    That's because his club duties, most notably with Clermont Auvergne, have meant that he hasn't always been available for international duty, though another factor in that obstruction has been his terrible disciplinary streak.

    One of the toughest players among the stars of France's top flight, the 6'5" Winnipeg native remains a key component for Clermont and their prominent placing among the Top 14 ranks. 

14. Tony Woodcock, Blues and New Zealand

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    Age: 33

    Last summer saw Tony Woodcock become just the third All Black ever to reach the milestone of 100 international caps, and the plaudits aimed in his direction as recognition of the achievement are fully deserved.

    And at 33, there's still time for the star prop to overcome Mealamu, currently three caps ahead of him in the New Zealand standings, before the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

    Woodcock's Super Rugby career has always been most celebrated for his long-term affiliation with the Blues which, save for a single season with the Highlanders, has produced 10 seasons of top-quality rugby.

    In 2011, Woodcock become the first-ever prop to score a try in the final of a Rugby World Cup, and what an essential score it was as the All Blacks rampaged to glory in front of their home support.

15. Victor Matfield, Bulls

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    Age: 36

    Having officially retired in 2011, the South African rugby community and indeed the rugby community as a whole would have been overjoyed to hear the news that Victor Matfield was coming back to the game last winter, per ESPN.

    John Smit beats the lock to the title of most-capped Springbok ever, but Matfield's staggering tally of 110 South African Test appearances nonetheless speaks highly of his pedigree, and that total could yet increase should his two-year contract with the Bulls lead to an international recall.

    As part of the prolific Bulls era of the 2000s, Matfield won three Super Rugby championships, not to mention a trio of Currie Cup wins with the Blue Bulls and being a prominent member of South Africa's 2007 Rugby World Cup success.

    With any luck, Matfield, who will be 38 at that stage, could compete for a place in the Springboks' World Cup squad next year, which could well be a sight that every fan would like to feast their eyes on.

16. Aurelien Rougerie, Clermont Auvergne and France

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    Age: 33

    Before all the big-money transactions and foreign acquisitions that have become so rife in French rugby down the years, there was Aurelien Rougerie, a one-club man who has never turned out elsewhere.

    The Clermont Auvergne die-hard began his career with the club in 2000 and, after several failed attempts, finally helped them win their first Top 14 title in 2010, still their only such championship.

    Rougerie's international career has been affected somewhat by several coaching appointments and other controversies, namely the eye-gouging allegations aimed in his direction for an incident which occurred against New Zealand at the 2011 Rugby Word Cup.

    Whatever has happened off the pitch, however, the centre-cum-winger has always let his talent speak for itself when on the turf, and his ability to play in midfield or out wide only speaks as some validation to his vast technical prowess.

17. Brad Thorn, Highlanders

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    Age: 39

    The oldest veteran to be included on our list, Brad Thorn is still going strong at the ripe old age of 39, but it doesn't show in the fashion with which he carries himself about the park.

    Dedicated to a strict and rigorous training regime, the lock has managed to extend his career into its second decade, and what a path it's been.

    Having once upon a time represented Australia in rugby league, the towering specimen would go on to switch allegiances after pulling on the black of New Zealand and it hasn't been put to waste.

    After featuring in the Rugby World Cup-winning side of 2011, Thorn moved to Japan and had a short stint with Leinster but is now back in Super Rugby headquarters with the Highlanders, having previously lined up for the Crusaders.

    With 59 caps to his name, Thorn isn't the most experienced player in the international spectrum, but one would be hard-pressed to find another man with more playing wisdom worth leeching.

18. Leo Cullen, Leinster

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    Age: 36

    Joining O'Driscoll on the Leinster retirement run at the end of this season is Leo Cullen, who will perhaps go down as one of the club's more understated heroes of the last decade.

    Cullen hasn't quite established himself as the same international icon as compatriot and sometime-lock partner O'Connell, making just 32 Test appearances for Ireland in a nine-year spell that ended in 2011.

    However, that's not to take anything away from the 36-year-old's talents which, despite never being blessed with the most gifted of natural talents, have always benefited from a tremendous work rate and commitment to the cause.

    Cullen has captained his Leinster teammates to Heineken Cup triumph on a record three occasions, and were it not for a two-season spell in Leicester, his presence at the RDS would be undoubtedly be of yet more historical value.

19. Dan Carter, Crusaders and New Zealand

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    Age: 32

    The youngest player on our list, Dan Carter warrants inclusion due to the fact that what he might lack in number of days lived, the New Zealand standout has more than made up for in potency of how he's spent his time.

    Widely regarded as one of the best fly-halves ever to have played, Carter holds the distinction of being the highest-ever points scorer in both Test history and Super Rugby competition.

    It took one season of playing with provincial side Canterbury for Crusaders to realise the talent they had in their midst, and though a journey of discovery briefly led the playmaker to Perpignan for a season, Carter hasn't looked elsewhere.

    With 100 caps to his name, Carter will be looking to do at the 2015 Rugby World Cup what he was unable to in 2011, picking up injury before entering the final stages of that year's tournament and missing out on the glorious victory that soon came.

20. Bakkies Botha, Toulon and South Africa

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    Age: 34

    A lot of what needs to be said about Bakkies Botha is summed up best by his official South Africa Rugby profile, which lists such war-orientated films as 300 and Braveheart as being among his favourites.

    As battle-hardened as they come, the world is a better place now that Botha has resumed his involvement with the Springboks, having initially seen some time away following his intercontinental move to Toulon.

    Before France knew what an asset they had on their hands, though, it was the Bulls who squeezed nine prolific years from their lock, during which time they won three Super Rugby titles.

    Botha was also a big part of the South Africa team that triumphed in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, which is just one of the three World Cup squads he's played a role in.