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When young and old is 'good enough'

When a team is selected the criterion should be – is he the best man for the job? Things like age, weight and height should not really come into play.

Once the job is defined, selection of the best man to do it comes more easily.

This is relevant to the speculation about the return of Victor Matfield to top rugby.

He has 110 Test caps. He was born on 11 May 1977. The Springboks first Test of 2014 is in Durban on 14 June 2014. If Matfield won his 111th cap in that match he would be 37 years one month and three days old. That would make him the second oldest Springbok in a Test – just.

The oldest at present is the Lions' coach Johan Ackermann – who was 37 years one month and 24 days when he played against Australia on 27 July 2007.

That means Matfield could become the oldest playing Springbok ever if he played against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld on 16 August 2014.

Too old?

Not if he is the best man for the job that Heyneke Meyer wants him to do. He still looks  lithe and athletic enough to win the line-outs, but whether his aged body can keep up with the hurly-burly of rugby only time will tell. Perhaps Super Rugby will tell.

Brad Thorn is the oldest player to play Super Rugby – at the age of 38 years one month and six days. Matfield would not pass that in 2014.

He would also be well short of the oldest man to play a Test.

That goes to Ned Hughes of New Zealand, who was 40 years four months and one day old when he played against the Springboks in 1921 – unless you count Hugo Porta's match for Argentina against a World XV in 1999, when he was over 48 and came on as a substitute, which all sounds too gimmicky to count.

There are other Springbok oldests –  Boy Morkel who was well on the way to 37 when he captained the Springboks in the third Test in 1921, after which he went back to farming, Deon Lötter who was nearly 36 at his last Test in 1993 – but then he is the oldest Springbok on debut when he was 35 years sevenmonths 23 days old, Frik du Preez who was nearly 36 when he played his last Test in Sydney and big Louis Moolman who was well over 35 when he ended his Springbok career against the New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986.

There is the other end of the spectrum.

When Freek Burger refereed his first Test in Salzburg in 1989, the Wallabies won 32-15 and they had two teenagers in the centres – Tim Horan, playing his second Test, and Jason Little, making his debut.

Even Jan Serfontein is older – at just over 20 when he came on as a substitute for Bryan Habana in  Durban in 2013. Other young modern players are James O'Connor of Australia and George North of Wales, both of whom were 18 when they made their debuts, O'Connor just a little older.

The youngest Springbok of all time was a Bishops schoolboy – Jack Hartley. There are differences of opinion over his age because there are differences about his birth date. He certainly played for South Africa against the English touring team, captained by a Scot, on 5 September 1891.

He died in Cape Town on 15 May 1923 on his way to have treatment in England for a dickey heart and he is buried in the Muizenburg Cemetery. There his date of birth is given as 1876, which would have made him the youngest-ever rugby international. In his death notice in the newspaper his age is given, presumably by his wife, as 49 years nine months, which would have meant that he was  born in 1874.

Even if she got the date of his death wrong on the tombstone, it seems unlikely that she would have got his age wrong, especially one as significant as an approaching 50th. That would have made him 17 years and 18 days old when he played the test. Frank Reid who was for years and years the secretary to the Old Diocesans Union and who made meticulous notes on Bishops Old Boys said that he was 17 when he played for South Africa, and Reid knew Hartley. But Adrian Hartley, Jack's nephew, suggests that his uncle was born in 1873. 1874 seems a good bet!

The youngest international of all time was Ninian Finlay of Scotland who was 17 years one month and 23 days old. The second youngest is Charles Reid of Scotland, a day older than Finlay because of a leap year.

There have been Springbok teenagers – Davey Cope, who was just over 19 when picked for South Africa, the first to score a conversion for South Africa in a Test match, who was killed in a train accident on his way to a Currie Cup tournament, Bob Loubser, Clive van Ryneveld, who played in 1910, the father of the Clive who played rugby for England and captained South Africa at cricket, Wally Mills, Freddie Turner, Syd de Melker, one of the husbands of the notorious poisoner Daisy de Melker, the last woman publicly executed in South Africa. These Springboks were all 19.

Of them Barry Heatlie is still the youngest forward to have played for South Africa, a colossal man for his time. He had a long South African career – 1891, 1896 and `1903. Then he went to Argentina and played for them in 1910 in their first Test. He certainly had a long international career.

DO Williams, the great Springbok wing of the 1930s, had just left Bishops and was barely 18 when he was chosen to replace Jock van Niekerk on the 1931-32 tour after Van Niekerk had injured a knee on the voyage. Williams played matches but no Tests on the tour and in fact did not play a Test till 1937 when he played in all five Tests in Australasia and then the three in 1938, the last Tests before  World War II.

Breyton Paulse had a similar experience. He was 20 when he toured with the Springboks in 1996, scored four tries in Mendoza but did not play a Test. Like Williams, he would later become one of the greatest Springboks of his time.

Nowhere is there a suggestion that any of these players was too old, too young or too anything else. They were chosen because they were good enough to do the job required of them.

By Paul Dobson


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