The passing of Colin Earl Meads after a battle with pancreatic cancer this morning leaves a larger-than-life void in the national game. I’m not of an age where I actually saw “Pinetree” – a name coined by a Taranaki opponent – play, but his legend was such that I was left in no doubt his place on New Zealand’s rugby pantheon; a place where he’s only challenged by Richie McCaw as our greatest.
That legend totals 55 Tests and 133 total matches for the All Blacks; the first to reach 50 when Tests when most years you could count the number of those on the fingers of one hand. Those totals count towards his 361 first-class matches from 1957-73, 139 of those came in the colours of his beloved King Country. In eleven of those Tests his partner at lock was his younger brother Stan.
The Pinetree of my years was a colourful fellow. He was for an extended period shut out by the national body over his decision to coach the rebel Cavaliers tour to South Africa in 1986, and he let people know about the sports/politics divide. Then there was the transition to product pitchman, even if some of those turned out to be ignominious failures (remember Tanalised Timber and Provincial Finance?), and eventually staunch defender of rugby’s “old school” values. Anyone who heard the man speak at innumerous engagements over the years will attest that diet and fitness regimes and the role of waterboys in the modern game were always a target; after all beer, steak and working the farm worked for him, so why not now too?
The Pinetree of his playing days was a rugged and uncompromising one. Sometimes that would get the better of him; the infamous sending-off against Scotland at Murrayfield and the incident that ended the career of Australian half-back Ken Catchpole being just two, but there were many that make you wonder what would’ve happened if he’d played in this era of slo-mo replays. But so often there’d be those moments of brilliance where his wide-ranging play would give him the ball in space; that famous run in South Africa holding the ball in one hand is etched into the minds of many rugby folk.
Meads was given the equivalent of a knighthood in 2001, upgrading it to ‘Sir’ when titles were restored later that decade and criticism of that was blunted in typical fashion.
There are of course the tributes we can see; the recently unveiled statue in Te Kuiti, his place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame, the naming of the Heartland Championship’s cup in his name, and most grassroots of all that his Waitete club have retired his number 5 jersey – the starting lock these days wears a jersey with number 55 on it. But most of all the enduring legacy that he is as much the foundation of New Zealand rugby’s DNA as anyone else.
Sir Colin Earl Meads
3 June 1936 – 20 August 2017
All Black #583
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