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When it comes time for a CEO to weigh up whether to offer a 30-something NRL player another contract, age should not be the defining number.
A player’s number of seasons is often a greater indicator of whether they’ll last much longer than their age.
The rugby league lexicon should be more like American sports where a player is referred to as a 13-year veteran of whichever sporting league rather than a 32-year-old.
Some players who debut as teenagers – especially in a physically intense sport like rugby league – are running on fumes by the time they hit 30.
Conversely, others who don’t crack the big time until they’re into their 20s often seem to have fresher legs as they enter what is traditionally been the twilight 30-something years of a career.
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South Sydney have two examples of the late bloomers coming off contract next season. Damien Cook and Cody Walker are able to negotiate elsewhere as of November 1 and, as is the case with the vast majority of NRL players, are keen to stay put, on the right terms.
Damien Cook and Cody Walker. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Cronulla have someone at the other end of the scale in Wade Graham, who made his debut as a Penrith high schooler way back in 2008, one of only four current NRL players who are in their 15th season.
Graham turns 32 in October, Cook reaches the same age next June while Walker will be 33 in January.
While the Cronulla captain has been struggling to stay on the field the past 12 months due to concussion and ankle problems, Cook and Walker have barely missed a game and look like they could keep playing at a high level for at least a few more years.
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Cook, who made his debut, is a 10-year player although he hardly racked up many kilometres on the speedometer in his first three seasons, playing a combined nine matches at the Dragons and Bulldogs before finding a home at Redfern.
Walker was a rarity in the modern era – he was 26 when he finally cracked it in the top grade after bouncing around the Queensland Cup and the lower grades at the Gold Coast and Melbourne, and is a seven-year player.
Graham, who is off contract at the end of this season, is pragmatic enough to know he can’t demand multi-year deals and is in negotiations with the Sharks on a one-year extension.
They did similar deals with his predecessor as captain, Paul Gallen, in the final years of his career and the Sharks cannot afford to outlay big dollars on a premiership-winning club legend with a bumper crop of younger talent in their pack like Briton Nikora, Toby Rudolf, Teig Wilton, Braden Hamlin-Uele and centre/edge forward Siosifa Talakai deserving substantial upgrades.
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Graham has already started media work in radio and begun getting coaching accreditation as he looks to his future beyond his playing days.
Wade Graham. (AAP Image/Craig Golding)
He was frank when speaking about the difficulty of staying at the elite level for a player of 271 games under his belt earlier this week at Cronulla’s player media availability session.
“It’s the hardest competition in the world. Just that grind you go through every week and it takes a lot of mental determination to get up for not only the games but training,” he said.
“The game is certainly not slowing down and the young guys coming through are just getting better and more professional. You need to still know you have that inner belief to compete with these guys every day. Those were a few boxes I had to tick.
“I definitely want to play on. I have had discussions with the club … we’re both comfortable with how they’ve progressed. I want to see the club move forward into the future in good areas. So the priority for me is getting those moving pieces a little more stable and then my stuff can just filter on in the background.”
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Graham has not played 20 games in a season for Cronulla since 2017 and will only do so this year if he lines up for all four matches left in the regular season plus a four-game finals campaign.
Walker has not played less than 20 and has already hit that milestone this season as he has not missed a match for the Rabbitohs while Cook, apart from his first year at Souths in 2016 when he made 17 appearances, has reached that benchmark every season since and is on track to do so again as Friday night’s clash with Parramatta will be his 19th for 2022.
Cook has said he wants a two-year add-on to his Rabbitohs deal to take him through until the end of 2025 which would give him 10 full seasons in red and green as he turns 34.
Walker, although older than his dummy-half provider, probably deserves a similar extension, particularly given the Bunnies allowed Adam Reynolds to join Brisbane so the five-eighth’s importance has only grown alongside rookie Lachlan Ilias in the playmaking department.
Unfortunately for those two, they are not South Sydney’s top priority – Latrell Mitchell, who shares the same manager as Walker in Matt Rose.
(Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)
Mitchell is also a free agent at the end of next year and the Bunnies have less than three months before he can start negotiating, and potentially signing a deal, with a rival club.
Not that he’s shown any inclination to wear any other colours apart from the famous cardinal and myrtle but he will command an annual seven-figure salary that will potentially restrain the Rabbitohs’ ability to give Cook and Walker their asking price.
Mitchell is still only 25 but he and Walker actually made their debut in the same game.
In the opening round of 2016, Mitchell lined up on the wing for the Roosters while Walker got his first taste of the South Sydney No.6 jersey in the traditional derby at the old Sydney Football Stadium.
Despite being born more than seven years apart, they are indeed both seven-year NRL players.
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