New Zealand's mighty Pinetree has fallen
OBITUARY: All Black great Sir Colin "Pinetree" Meads, a legendary hardman who helped give New Zealand rugby its edge, died on Sunday aged 81 after battling cancer.
The towering lock was an automatic selection during a golden era of All Black rugby, inspiring fear and admiration in opponents over a 55-Test career spanning 14 years from 1957-71.
But it was Meads' humble persona, as much as his ferocity, that saw him lionised in his homeland.
He maintained a small sheep station throughout his career, epitomising the amateur-era All Black ideal of a grizzled farmer who could stride off the paddock and onto the rugby field to beat the best in the world.
"Colin Meads is probably the most iconic New Zealander I can think of," then Prime Minister John Key said in August 2016, when Meads revealed he had pancreatic cancer.
"He's a great man and the nation loves him dearly."
Meads, nicknamed Pinetree because of his lanky 1.92-metre frame, was a one-club player, only ever representing his beloved King Country at provincial level.
Internationally, he was part of the all-conquering All Blacks who won 17 consecutive Tests from 1965-69, a world-record feat only bettered by the team's 2016 edition almost 50 years later. He played for the All Blacks 133 times, a number only exceeded by modern-day great Richie McCaw.
Meads retired in 1971 after captaining the All Blacks against the British and Irish Lions.
In 1999, he was named New Zealand's Player of the Century and was later knighted, then inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014. However, Meads shied away from individual accolades and in his later years was happy to refer to McCaw as the greatest ever All Black
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew called Meads "a true legend of the game".
His reputation for toughness was enhanced when he broke an arm playing against Eastern Transvaal in 1970, going on to complete the game and finish on the winning side. He then treated the injury himself using horse liniment, missing the first two Tests, but returning for the third and playing with his arm protected by a thin guard.
There was controversy, most notably when he ended the career of Australia's Ken Catchpole by pulling the halfback's leg in a ruck. Meads always maintained the incident was the result of poor timing, rather than malice.
He also became only the second All Black in history to be sent off when Irish referee Kevin Kelleher dismissed him for dangerous play during a 1967 win against Scotland.
A myth developed that he shunned the gym and trained by running with a sheep tucked under each arm, although Meads insisted a photographer just happened to capture the moment he was carrying two sick animals back to the shed.
After retiring, he continued to work his farm into his 70s before moving into the nearby township of Te Kuiti where he was ever ready to share his knowledge.
"If you come off the field and you feel you haven't done enough, you've let the side down," was a Meads maxim.
On comparing his amateur era to the modern professional game, he said: "I used to sit in a corner. I didn't change until 30 minutes before the game. The haka was my warm-up. I worry about the modern game, I think they do too much warm-up. If you need tackling practice before the game, you shouldn't be in the team."
After announcing in August 2016 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after feeling "crook" (sick) for six months, he asked for privacy as he fought the disease.
Meads' biographer, the late Alex Veysey, said success never changed the big man.
"His rugby moved multitudes to wild-eyed, horse-throated frenzy," Veysey wrote.
"Yet when rugby day was done, he became what he had always been - a farmer embarrassed by his fame, always seeking the quiet company of his fellows, a bit bemused when the autograph hunters besieged him beyond others."
New Zealand Rugby Board Chair Brent Impey has paid tribute to Sir Colin for the unrivalled mark he left on the national game.
"Sir Colin is an icon of rugby and New Zealand. Uncompromising on the field, his exploits are that of folklore, while he was just as revered off the field," he said.
In a career that spanned almost two decades, Sir Colin played 361 first class matches, a feat only recently surpassed by Keven Mealamu. He appeared for the All Blacks 133 times including 55 Test matches, 11 as captain.
"Beyond his playing days, he continued to support the game at many levels, but it was his significant contribution and support for organisations outside of rugby, that made him a very special New Zealander.
"He contributed much to many organisations such as the IHC, the Crippled Children's Society and the New Zealand Rugby Foundation, at a time when the game suffered a series of serious spinal injuries.
"He will be remembered as possibly the most treasured legend of our game. Our thoughts go to Lady Verna and the Meads family at this time," Impey added.
All Blacks Captain Kieran Read said: "This is an incredibly sad day. Sir Colin was an icon of our game. I met him a few times and he was always keen to share a beer and have a yarn. On behalf of all players, our thoughts go out to his family at this time."
All Blacks Steve Hansen said: "The thoughts of the entire All Blacks team are with Sir Colin's family at this incredibly sad time. His achievements in the black jersey are part of the All Blacks legacy and his loss will be felt by rugby people all over the world."
AllBlacks.com tribute: Sir Colin Meads obituary
The Pinetree has fallen. 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 20 August 2017.
Test matches 55, total All Blacks appearances 78. 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 the 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 wasn't always in the NZRU's good books and after managing the Cavaliers to South Africa in 1986 he stood down as an All Blacks selector. However, 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.
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