21 Aug 2017

Colin Meads: The man who built the All Blacks

10:06 am on 21 August 2017

Opinion - Fresh off a very unusual off-field week for the All Blacks came news that the greatest one of all was gone: Colin Meads, All Black, died on Sunday aged 81.

Sir Colin Meads at the All Blacks test against Wales in Dunedin, 19 June 2010, and at a rugby coaching school in Taumarunui on 30 May 1976.

Sir Colin Meads at the All Blacks test against Wales in Dunedin, 19 June 2010, and at a rugby coaching school in Taumarunui on 30 May 1976. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Meads, the man who has a lock on the title of greatest player of all time. Meads, the tight forward who ran down the field clutching the pill like some kid making do with a pencil case for a lunchtime game. Meads, the player who sorted things out the old-fashioned way and became a legend for it.

He was a man whose existence basically epitomises the mythology of why the All Blacks are seen to be so great, but also one whose career spanned a changing society.

1957 was a long, long time ago. New Zealand was still very much a provincial British backwater, but had just seen maybe the most intense rugby series the year before. By beating the Springboks in '56, the All Blacks were the heavyweight champs, and Colin Meads made his debut for the team the next year.

It was the start of a career that spanned 14 years, 133 games and 55 tests - while managing a farm, and playing for his local club and province.

Humble, honest, hard-working. The 'good old days', when men were men and trained for the rugby season by running up and down the hills of their farms with a sheep under each arm - or so the story goes.

While he was revered here for his ability to brutally settle matters on the field of play, he wasn't held in such high regard in Australia. For years he's been blamed for ending the career of Wallaby halfback Ken Catchpole, twisting his leg out of a ruck and supposedly almost tearing it clean off - if the more wild exaggerations are to be believed. Meads himself rubbished the claims, saying that Catchpole was back playing only a few months later and was going to retire anyway.

1971 was a long time ago too, but the country had changed an awful lot by the time Meads played his last game for the All Blacks. Just like last month, it was a draw against the British Lions at Eden Park.

Between his first and last games, the landscape was very different. Meads had played two test series in South Africa, but that was temporarily on hold because people had started to realise what was happening there politically wasn't acceptable.

Meads captained the team in that '71 series. It didn't end well - the All Blacks lost their only series to the Lions in that famous year, but the fact is they were a team on their last legs. The bulk of the side that dominated the mid to late 1960s, generally regarded as the most dominant period of pre-professional All Black history, was gone, and even the mighty Meads couldn't stop a series loss that British rugby folk have been reminding us about ever since.

That series aside, Meads certainly produced all the on-field results in the name of this country that it could have wanted.

However, there was one moment that, in hindsight, no one should look back on fondly. The 1986 Cavaliers tour to apartheid South Africa is one of the dirtiest chapters in All Black history, and Meads was very much in the middle of it as coach.

It's the tour that no one involved in New Zealand Rugby wants to talk about, given that the players involved had to dodge protesters on the way into the airport, were widely condemned by the public, were barely punished upon their return and lost the series anyway.

It cost him his position as All Blacks selector, although he returned as manager of the side for the 1995 Rugby World Cup. After that, he ended an almost 40-year association with the national side in an official capacity.

Since that time, Meads has become the symbol of everything the All Blacks aspire to be - not least the 'good old days' of New Zealand. Straight up and down, no nonsense, play footy, drink beer.

The All Blacks of today have eclipsed the win record of Meads' team from 1965-70. They're a far different bunch of young men than the ones that went on long tours to the UK and South Africa back in the old days, but the legacy of understatement and commitment to winning is evident. Colin Meads helped build those foundations maybe more than anyone else.

He probably would've enjoyed the performance of Liam Squire on Saturday night. A big man, charging down the field and enforcing at the ruck like Meads used to in the days of black and white TV footage. But if he shared a beer with Squire in the sheds after the game, he probably would've told him to get a haircut.

Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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