Sir Colin Meads: 'Special and ahead of his time'

4:40 pm on 20 August 2017

Opinion - Sir Colin Meads, a farmer from small town Te Kuiti, had a bigger impact on a sport and a country than most could ever dream of.

Sir Colin “Pinetree” Meads

Sir Colin Meads Photo: NZ RUGBY FOUNDATION

I'd been a journalist for a matter of months when my boss at the Ashburton Guardian gave me an assignment to travel south to Hinds to interview Sir Colin.

I didn't sleep the night before through absolute panic and I nearly had a prang on the drive down.

I was told to go up to him, introduce myself and just have a chat. It had all been organised and he was expecting me, but I was still petrified to approach him.

I stood 50 metres away watching him watch rugby - I'm not sure I've written a creepier sentence.

How do you approach a man world-class rugby players feared? If it hadn't been for an almost equally scary boss I may never have.

I bumbled through a couple of naff questions before Meads said: "Are you okay, young fella, you seem a bit nervous?"

A bit?

"Well, you're a bit of a legend and my dad told me these stories about you and how tough you were and how much you intimidated the opposition," I fawned.

"Haha, I don't know about that, young fella," he said. "I'm just like any other Kiwi bloke, I like rugby, I like a beer and I put my shoes on one at a time in the morning."

He then invited me to join him for a pint, told me the pitfalls of professionalism, opinions on players and who he thought was overrated.

"For God's sake don't write that though," he said.

Of course I didn't. I would have sung 'I'm a Little Teapot' if he'd told me to.

Colin Meads breaks free during the 1971 Lions tour.

Colin Meads breaks free during the 1971 Lions tour. Photo: Photosport / Peter Bush Collection

So many people have a Colin Meads story. Social media has been littered with them today since the news of his death knocked politics and sex scandals out of top spot in the news.

And that, in part, is what made him so special - he was approachable and real.

We'd love to say he was the everyman, though we'd be kidding ourselves. He was special and ahead of his time on a footy field.

A giant man and a farmer from small town Te Kuiti, he had a bigger impact on a sport and a country than most could ever dream of. We imagine him as an everyday Kiwi, but that's more of a wish than a reality.

Few, if any, sportspeople have had such an impact on as many in New Zealand.

In a world where sports stars are on such a high pedestal, Meads was just there. He was often seen at the pub, did thousands of speaking engagements and probably chatted to 90 percent of the people at each one.

A few years after my initial encounter, I was working at the Waikato Times and some inconsequential rugby matter popped up. The boss at the time told me to call Meads for some comment. Where did I find his number? The phonebook - he was more available than some club players now.

His status as a legend comes down to a handful of things.

First and foremost he was really good. A ball-playing lock, Meads re-invented the position. He ran with the ball and, for a big guy - he was a beast of a bloke for his era - he had skills. Think Brodie Retallick with a bit more pace off the mark.

He was an enforcer and an intimidator and was as durable as they come.

His 55 tests don't sound like many in today's numbers, but his All Black career spanned more than 15 seasons and his 133 games for the All Blacks is a phenomenal number.

He stopped playing 10 years before I was even born, but he played on in the stories told and retold by my - and most people's - parents and grandparents.

Meads, they'd often say, was the best there ever was, and it was okay to idolise him, to hero-worship him, because he was that good.

In the late 1950s, when he first started representing New Zealand, fawning over sports stars wasn't the done thing.

Try telling that to a bunch of middle-aged and older Kiwis today, who feel like their boyhood hero, the indestructible Pinetree, has fallen.

Sir Colin Meads. Sir Colin Meads Tribute Dinner, SkyCity, Auckland, Wednesday 29th September 2010.

Photo: Photosport

To this day, the All Blacks have this persona of being hard men on the field who will never take a backward step. They're an intimidating side for any opposition to play and many teams struggle to play their best against them for that reason.

One could argue Meads started that reputation. He was far from perfect and could be a bit grumpy later in life - but that all added to the charm for me.

He was given the name Pinetree during a New Zealand Colts tour. On one hand it's a fitting moniker, on the other it isn't. Pine trees are a dime a dozen in New Zealand and in reality Meads was unique, special and superb.

But then again, he was our everyman - our dream of what a 'typical' Kiwi bloke was like. The normal Kiwi fella who turned out to be oh so special.

Matt Richens has been a sports journalist for 11 years. He attributes his premature baldness to the stress of being a sports fan.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs