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'Skinny guy' laughs off talk of being too old at 35

The Clermont Auvergne v Toulon clash in the former's Stade Marcel Michelin 11 days ago was one of the great occasions of European club rugby - the best two sides in France going head-to-head in a match that will almost certainly have a huge bearing on the destination of the country's Top 14 Championship.

Scott MacLeod wins lineout ball for Newcastle Falcons in their match against Worcester Warriors  last Sunday.  Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
Scott MacLeod wins lineout ball for Newcastle Falcons in their match against Worcester Warriors last Sunday. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Two sides, moreover, with seemingly bottomless pockets, able to plunder the world in a money-no-object quest for talent. So who did we find at the heart of their packs, putting in the hard yards for their respective sides? This is where it gets interesting.

The Clermont second-row was made up of Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore. Toulon's lock partnership was formed by Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha. An Australian (who played for Scotland), a Canadian, a New Zealander and a South African. Combined age: 138.

Or, to put it another way, an average age of 34½. Now these are not individuals coasting quietly into retirement, rather players at the top of their games doing serious shifts for teams that cannot afford to carry any passengers. Clearly, having a few miles on the clock is no hindrance if you have the heart and the talent to carry on at the top level.

Rugby has thrown up a few other Methuselah locks in the professional era. Simon Shaw made his Lions Test debut at the age of 35 and was still part of the England squad two years later; Gareth Llewellyn was still playing Premiership rugby for Bristol at 39, and now we have Scott MacLeod, a player whose career seemed to be in its pipe-and-slippers phase when he headed off to Japan a couple of years ago, but who has just signed on for another season of Aviva Premiership rugby at Newcastle Falcons.

MacLeod celebrated his 35th birthday early last month, but he certainly did not mark the occasion by easing off on the playing front. While the Falcons have struggled all season, the spring-heeled lock, still one of the most gifted and natural ball players in the game, has been in outstanding form. And just as his abilities as a player seem unaffected by the weight of years, his happy-go-lucky personality is still as upbeat as ever.

"People keeping going on about how old I am - I'm a 35-year-old veteran and all that," said MacLeod, "but I genuinely don't feel any different to when I was in my 20s. I'm still skinny, still what I am. I feel good, delighted to have got another year on my contract, which will take me to 36. I have had a good crack at it and I'm enjoying myself here at Newcastle."

The Hawick-born, Hawick-raised and still Hawick resident MacLeod has had one of the stranger career trajectories of recent Scottish players. Given his geographic backdrop you might expect that he was steeped in rugby, but he didn't actually play the game seriously until he was 21. Until then, his sporting focus was on basketball and golf, but, having taken up the game with junior side Hawick Trades, he moved quickly through the ranks and made his Test debut for Scotland in 2004.

"I'm just lucky," he smiled. "I'm a bag of bones from Hawick but I keep myself fit. Maybe being late starting the game has held me in good stead as I haven't had to come through injuries and that as a youngster. I really don't know."

MacLeod was Newcastle's Player of the Year last season, helping them win promotion back into the Aviva Premiership. Even as they have struggled in the top flight - they are second-bottom in the table, just above Gloucester, at the moment - his athleticism has illuminated their performances. But as ageless as he might seem to fans of the Kingston Park side, he knows that he is on the finishing straight as a professional player.

Could he see himself playing anywhere else? Apparently not. "My moving days are done," MacLeod laughed. "I am from Hawick and I travel down to Newcastle every day. That is tough at times, but my kids are three and five, at school and nursery, and I don't want to move on.

"I wouldn't want to move to any other club even if they did want a 35-year-old skinny guy. I never even looked. I'm happy where I am."

While only rarely a first-choice for his country, MacLeod still managed to pick up 24 Scotland caps between 2001 and 2011, and while 15 of those appearances were off the bench, his starts included two wins over England and one against South Africa. Given Scotland's travails in the Six Nations just ended, does he fancy another tilt at the Test scene?

He laughs at the suggestion, but the idea still appeals. "I still think I can play well enough," he said. "I don't doubt my ability, but I don't see it happening. Look at who is there now, there is massive competition. I would love it if it did. I am certainly available."

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