All Black great 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 (6ft 3in) 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”.
EMBARRASSED BY FRAME
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.”
Meads is survived by his wife Verna, their five children, 14 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.