What do Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Joe Rokocoko and Jonah Lomu have in common?

The quartet, firmly among New Zealand's greatest outside backs, never featured for the All Blacks beyond the age of 27.

This fantastic four ranks third to sixth on the All Blacks' all-time try-scoring list, collectively amassing 173 from 249 tests. And, yet, unlike many modern forwards, none went close to kicking on into their 30s.

Numbers alone don't do their feats justice.


For many, Cullen is still regarded as the greatest fullback to play the game. He was certainly the most captivating with ball in hand. His ability to swerve or step without losing pace left countless defenders for dead, while he also had freakish upper-body strength.

Whether it was from fullback or wing, Wilson possessed similar speed, vision and a superb chip and chase.

Rokocoko was a true finisher in every sense of the word. Give him any ounce of space and he was gone. He often threw in a dummy or spin; a magic in-and-away and was never shy of contact -running through the English and Springbok packs. And he did it all with a smile on his face.

Lomu was, well, Lomu. Pace and power personified in one unstoppable human force.
Fiji's Rupeni Caucaunibuca, one of the most gifted of them all, also dimmed rapidly in his later years.

The relevance of reminiscing comes with the plight of Julian Savea, who just happened to turn 27 on the same day he was dropped from the All Blacks for the Rugby Championship.

Reasons for the seemingly swift decline of these brilliant outside backs differ to some extent. But the common theme is their potency all faded. And when your prime role is to score tries, this becomes a major issue.

For Lomu, kidney disease crippled his capacity to perform at his peak.

Cullen lost pace after a serious knee injury and was then axed - prematurely for many - by the John Mitchell-Robbie Deans coaching team ahead of the 2003 World Cup.

Wilson retired for a crack at the Black Caps. Rokocoko lost his zip and ability to beat defenders with such ease.

It has been a similar story for Savea. For the Hurricanes this year he scored seven tries and beat 34 defenders from 15 games while team-mate Ngani Laumape grabbed 15 tries and beat 58 tacklers.

Savea produced positive moments but the last time we really saw him in menacing form came in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against France in Cardiff.

Only time will tell if he can navigate the pathway Cullen, Lomu, Wilson and Rokocoko could not.

As we've seen with Usain Bolt, fast-twitch fibers slow even for the best athletes.

Cullen enjoyed six years with the All Blacks; Wilson and Rokocoko seven. Savea has been there for five, and on a lucrative contract that runs through to 2019 may still have more to offer.

He can look to the likes of Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Mils Muliaina, Leon MacDonald and Doug Howlett, all of whom broke the 27 barrier. Howlett featured in the All Blacks until the age of 29 and still holds the try-scoring record with 49, three more than Savea, Cullen and Rokocoko.

But Savea is a different kind of player. At present he is competing with Waisake Naholo, 26, and Rieko Ioane, 20, for the All Blacks power wing role. Nehe Milner-Skudder's return is another factor. And Savea is limited in the sense of being confined to the left edge.

In the context and quality of who has gone before, the worry must be Savea's best years may be behind him. Richard Kahui, used on the wing with great success in the 2011 World Cup, was another not to make it beyond 26 in test rugby. Sir John Kirwan and Sitiveni Sivivatu pushed through to 29.

Savea's challenge is to now defy the sense that wingers do not get better with age.

Age of last tests for the All Blacks:

Christian Cullen 26 and 277 days
Jeff Wilson 27 and 305 days
Joe Rokocoko 27 and 153 days
Jonah Lomu 27 and 195 days