Money for old hopes

Jonathan Davies says the professional age has increased the lifespan of the player
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The Independent Online
PAUL SAMPSON and his fellow young professionals are on the threshold of what should be an exciting club career. But, if he attempts to look into the future Sampson will see nothing but a vague outline of what path that career might take.

I am sure that rugby's struggle for power will eventually settle down and that the game will offer youngsters like Sampson a prospect their predecessors would have drooled over. Legal wages, unlimited bonuses, a thriving transfer market and plenty of opportunities to play in other countries - all these promises seem likely to come true eventually but at the moment only established stars with cast-iron contracts can be confident of immediate big earnings.

There's another reason why the journey of young rugby union players into a professional career may not be as rewarding as the first indications suggested - they are going to have to fight their way past a bunch of old codgers suddenly desperate to hang on to their boots.

Despite being an old codger, I do not class myself among them. It has long been my plan to retire in 1997 and my move from Warrington to Cardiff merely changed my code not my intentions. But there are players around my age who were on the verge of packing in had not professionalism arrived. Now they've found a new lease of life.

I can't blame them for thinking twice about quitting just when the gravy train is pulling into the station. But it is not just the money; rugby is suddenly offering new adventures and experiences. You'd have to be really sick of the game to volunteer to walk out now.

Union may have got itself into a mess and few of us know exactly what sort of club competitions we will be playing in over the next few months but there is a new buzz around. Players like David Campese and Sean Fitzpatrick are still proving that you can play on at the top level while well into your thirties.

Football players are carrying on longer these days, look at Ray Wilkins, so why should rugby players rush for the exit just because tradition dictates that the thirtysomethings ought to clear off? They say that older players can't keep fit enough but for a few years now fitness levels in union have been higher than they've ever been. And that goes for older players especially. Besides, clubs carry bigger squads now so the old 'uns can pick their games more carefully and the relaxing of the replacement rules means that they needn't play an entire game.

In my opinion, it is not a lack of fitness that persuades a man to give up; it is a lack of enthusiasm. If you still hunger for the game, you'll stand the pace and take the knocks. But if your heart isn't in it any longer, you will soon get found out. It so happens that money and adventure do wonders for a man's enthusiasm.

Brian Moore, the former England hooker, has been enticed out of retirement and you can't say he needs the money. He just can't resist a new challenge and that is exactly what union has become.

The clubs don't appear to have any age limits, either, as the recruitment of Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella shows. Experience counts for a lot and will count for a great deal more as the season unwinds. As an old pro to a new pro, I wish Paul Sampson the best of luck but I doubt if he'll find it easy. There was a time when the veterans happily made way for the young bucks. Now they just growl. The old days are gone forever.