A legend has fallen: Tribute to Sir Colin Meads

Getty Images     20 Aug 2017     Getty Images

New Zealand's rugby player of the 20th Century, Sir Colin Meads has died, aged 81.

Colin Earl Meads, born June 3, 1936, Cambridge. Died August 20, 2017, Total All Blacks appearances 133 (55 Tests, 78 non-Tests), debut v New South Wales, Sydney, May 25, 1957, final game v British and Irish Lions, Auckland, August 14, 1971, 11 Tests as captain. All Black number 583. NZR councillor 1992-96, NZ selector 1986, NZ manager 1994-95, NZR life member 2007, recipient of Steinlager Salver for outstanding service to rugby 1999, inducted into International Rugby Hall of Fame 1997 and voted NZ rugby player of the century in 1999. Knighted in 2009.

Feared during his playing career and revered ever after, Sir Colin Meads was knighted in 2009, recognition of the impact he made both as a rugby player with the All Blacks and as an icon of the game who contributed so much after his career through his work with the Intellectually Handicapped Children's organisation as well as the Crippled Children's Society and the New Zealand Rugby Foundation, at a time when the game suffered a series of serious spinal injuries.

A popular, and entertaining, after-dinner speaker Meads cared greatly about the All Blacks' legacy and, apart from his playing career, he served the game as a manager of the All Blacks and as a New Zealand Rugby Union councillor. It was during his time as manager, in France in 1995 just after the game had gone professional, that Meads gave the modern-day players a reminder of what it meant to be an All Black. In a closed room session with the players after a disappointing first Test loss to France he delivered a stinging tirade to the All Blacks saying while he and his team-mates didn't enjoy so much of what players of modern times did they were never scared, but he had seen a scared team on the field in the last match. Players never forgot what he said and delivered a stunning second Test victory.
Meads had played through a tough period in the game. Coming into the All Blacks from the King Country, he was first selected to tour Australia in 1957 as the selectors set about rebuilding their side after many All Blacks retired following the 1956 series against the Springboks in New Zealand.

While he moved around the pack from lock to flanker to No.8, Meads eventually settled into a locking role and became one of the most outstanding operators in that position. Not a significant leaper for the ball in lineouts, he had a combativeness that made him a tough competitor and a player capable of scrapping well for the ball in the days when lifting in lineouts was illegal.

He also had great skill running with the ball and in his latter years was a firm advocate of the freer style of game introduced to the All Blacks of the era by coach Fred Allen. The hard edge to his game began to be felt in the tough South African environment on New Zealand's tour of 1960, but like all other New Zealand teams until 1996, series wins in the apartheid republic were never achieved. While South Africans never wanted to lose to New Zealand, there was great respect for them as opponents and Meads was near the top of the list, a point made in 1970 when his arm was broken deliberately by a kick before the first Test.

Most players would have returned home to nurse their wounds but Meads merely found a way to return to play with his arm protected by a guard to further enhance his hard man legacy.

There were times when it counted against him, notably in France in 1967 when he was attacked while trapped on the ground suffering severe head injuries from a deliberate kick. A week later, sporting prominent bandages around his head, he was sensationally ordered from the field for dangerous play in the Test match against Scotland. Only the second international to suffer the fate, it was assumed it would be the end of his career, and Meads admitted to thinking that himself.

But the world was more forgiving than it had been when the first sending off occurred at Twickenham when Cyril Brownlie was dismissed during the 1924-25 Test against England. Meads returned home to a hero's welcome and began to exchange Christmas cards with the referee who sent him off, Irishman Kevin Kelleher.

He was also involved in a tragic accident during the 1968 tour of Australia when attempting to pull local halfback Ken Catchpole from a ruck, not realising one of Catchpole's legs was pinned and resulting in badly torn muscles. Claims that the injury ended Catchpole's career were erroneous as Meads stated they played together in Samoa a year later.

Such was the rugby played on that 1967 tour that Meads became a firm advocate of the running game that Allen introduced. He said at the last team gathering at the end of the tour, "We are now all convinced about this business of running rugby. We must take the idea back to our clubs and get them to see how good it is."

After another disappointment in South Africa in 1970, he was selected to captain the side, something he was reluctant to do, against the 1971 British & Irish Lions, a significant contender for the greatest side to tour New Zealand. The All Blacks were close to saving the series but lacked the strong core that had stood them in such good stead during the late-1960s and went down 1-2 with one Test, the last, drawn.

Meads' stature saw him awarded a farewell match in 1973 by the NZRFU of the day, a game in which his President's XV beat the All Blacks at Athletic Park. He became a national councillor of the NZRU in 1992, serving until a change of board structure in 1996.

Meads played 18 seasons, and 139 times for his King Country side, and led the combined Wanganui-King Country team to victory over the 1966 Lions side.

By the time his rugby career was completed in 1974 Meads had played 361 games, a feat not surpassed until Keven Mealamu passed his total in 2015.

He coached King Country from 1976-81 and in 2002 allowed his name to be given to the trophy, the Meads Cup, for the winner of the annual Heartland competition.

Colin Meads was the subject of two autobiographies, the first Colin Meads All Black with Alex Veysey breaking best seller records in New Zealand when released in 1974 and another best seller Meads, written by Brian Turner and published in 2002. Another book, The A-Z of Meads, was written by former television commentator Keith Quinn.

In June 2017, Sir Colin Meads was immortalised in a bronze statue which was unveiled in his home town of Te Kuiti.