At the age of 37, Liam Messam and Ross Taylor are both finding ways to successfully tick along in professional sport. Lachlan Waugh looks at how both men are able to physically stay ahead of the curve.
When is the right time to walk away from professional sport? For 37-year-olds Liam Messam and Ross Taylor, the answer appears to be "not yet".
Former All Black Messam was as surprised as anyone when he was named in the Chiefs' starting lineup to face the Brumbies in May. Just a few weeks earlier he turned up to the team's training, uninvited, to "spread a little bit of grey hair on the young fellas," and earned himself a squad spot for the Super Rugby TransTasman competition.
Meanwhile Ross Taylor, one of the Black Caps' finest ever batsmen, is still an integral part of the world conquering cricket side who recently beat India in the World Test Championship final.
All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill says he's not surprised at the long careers of players with such intense drive.
"There's no age," said Gill. "You stop playing the game when your heart's no longer in it and your enjoyment is gone. [When it starts] becoming a chore and a burden rather than a sport you love with a passion, I think that's when you know it's time to have a think."
Gill has worked within the All Blacks camp since 2004 and has spent time with a host of rugby programs across the country including the Junior All Blacks, Chiefs and Waikato. Few have his vast experience and capabilities to work for New Zealand's premier sports team.
"I think that's what happened in some levels of sport, whether that's swimming or cycling… if it's all too intense, that drive or that enjoyment disappears at a younger age. We've got guys like Liam [Messam] playing through to his late thirties, but we've got guys coming out of 1st XVs that are hanging up their boots because it's been too hard."
Messam fits the mould perfectly of a player driven to continue in rugby, and go through the rigorous training routines to stay in the required condition.
Upon his return to New Zealand last year he sought opportunities with Waikato and the Māori All Blacks; two teams that he said helped make him "battle-hardened" for the third team he represented back home – the Chiefs.
"I haven't' come straight out of the cold like some people might've thought of… I've been preparing," Messam told the Herald.
He said his passion for fitness was drilled into him from a young age when his formative rugby days saw featured stints with the Mooloos and the New Zealand rugby sevens side.
"I come from a school of Gordon Tietjens and Eric Rush, that's been embedded in me since I was 16 years old. It's a habit I've tried to break but a good thing or bad thing, it's something I've always had since a young fellow. I've always worked hard, trained hard; I have changed a few things – my recovery and the amount of running I don't do anymore, I do more boxing or cycling. I'm always there pushing the body."
Gill said what separates the good athletes from the great ones is work ethic.
"The fitter and therefore healthier you are, generally the longer you can play the game for. As long as you can get the body whole and you can stay as fit as required, fitter than others, then you can play a lot longer.
"All those things get more important as you get older... turning up to training 15-20 minutes earlier than you would've when you were young, because you need time to get the body moving.
"When we're young, we're sort of bulletproof and we can get away with lots of shortcuts... as we get older the attention and effort required to keep the body in one piece gets greater and greater."
Prior to scoring 80 and an unbeaten 47 at the backend of the Black Caps trip to England, Taylor endured five consecutive innings without a half-century and 17 without a ton, leading to an average of 31.7 across his last 22 innings batted (or in simpler terms, since the start of the Black Caps' two-match series away to Sri Lanka that followed the 2019 Cricket World Cup).
Like most in his age range, Taylor is battling a minor downturn in output mixed in with a degenerating body compared to his earlier days on the cricket pitch. That has seen hamstring and calf niggles hamper his 2021, clouding his availability in the lead-up to New Zealand's recent three tests overseas.
He is aware he needs to adapt. Before his departure, Taylor said he felt comfortable with where his body was at but is already looking ahead to next season and how he can stay in shape.
"Obviously you don't want to have that… this little [calf] niggle came about by trying to get the hamstring right so it's part and parcel of being an international cricketer. Probably more is made of it when you get older – if you get a calf or a hamstring injury at 32 nothing's made of it, but when you're 37 it adds a few more headlines," he said.
"For the next summer, it's probably just managing it a bit... it's about pacing yourself a little bit more and enjoying those breaks and giving the time to rest and not necessarily give the mind a break, but just give the body a refresh and strengthen it up."
Unsurprisingly, Taylor's caution about his body is warranted – the calf muscle is an area Gill said is something older athletes need to take more care of.
"There's a couple of body parts that become a bit harder or become less resilient like the calf muscle - a bit of a challenge as we get older," he said. "Speed becomes something that's harder to maintain as you get older, that's definitely true."
On Wednesday the all-too-familiar topic of retirement again followed Taylor around, but in between elements of ambiguity he again expressed a desire to stay in the game at domestic and international level.
"[I'm] still loving the game of cricket, still want to learn and get better so I think that's a good sign. At this stage, I just want to keep playing cricket, whatever level that is for as long as I can," he said.
Like Taylor, Messam is at a stage in his life where he's adjusting his training methods to his ageing body. He says no longer does he chase numbers, as there's no point going around and "showing off" at 37.
"I think the biggest thing I've learnt over my career is you can't afford to have an off switch," said Messam. "I felt like at the end of a holiday or like say a week or two weeks your body just completely shuts down on you. Some form of fitness or whatever it may be, I got to keep going or keep ticking over. That's my lifestyle, I love it – it was my choice to live this lifestyle. It's easy for me to park up and get old, but I want to live a healthy lifestyle."
"Addiction is the word that it is, because it is. If I have a day off or two days off I get really guilty and I got to go out and have a sweat or do something. It's not saying I don't enjoy having a burger or pizza here and there or having a treat now and then."
Gill has had to move with the times as well and said every year something is different from a coaching perspective.
"The techniques we use, the low-unit plays… the size of the athletes, the speed of the athletes, and their knowledge. I think the knowledge of the staff has increased, we know more about what we're doing and I don't mean that we didn't know in the first place but we're getting better at it," he said.
"The bar is constantly being raised by staff and by the athletes so it's changed a lot. I think about the props when I started in '08, the average prop size was probably 112-113kgs and the average prop now is about 127… that's pretty phenomenal and that's not that they're getting less fit or less mobile, they're getting bigger and just as fast and just as powerful, if not stronger."
Super Rugby is done and dusted for the year, and apart from a slate of appearances on the horizon for Waikato, Messam's time on the field has a faint question mark on its surface. But he isn't quite thinking about hanging up the boots just yet, and knows it is a decision that requires absolute certainty.
"I'm really enjoying being back, it has been physically taxing but I've loved the challenge and the grind of being able to do that. If I'm still having a positive influence, then I'm more than happy to do it again. If not we'll just see what happens, I'm in that mindset if it happens it happens, if it doesn't it doesn't.
"I've talked to plenty of guys that are just retired or guys that have retired, the biggest regret they've had is that they've finished too early. Obviously, guys that have had to finish because of injuries, but guys that didn't, felt they should've kept going… why not hey. I know people talk about the age and whatnot… I don't know, I don't like to prove people wrong but it gives you a little bit of extra fuel in the belly when you're at my age."