The essence of competition
June 3, 2011
Colin Meads is an icon in New Zealand © Getty Images
A very happy birthday to Colin Meads, who is 75 on June 3. That he is not 'Sir Colin' is down solely to New Zealand's decision to cast off elements of its colonial heritage - the award of Companion of Merit, the successor honour, in 2001 gives him a standing equal to other Kiwi icons like Dame Kiri te Kanawa and Sir Edmund Hillary.
It was a status underlined during the British & Irish Lions tour of 2005, when New Zealand papers spoke without irony of visiting fans 'having an audience' with him. The experience was doubtless worthwhile. While great players are by definition exceptional people, they also express something of where they are from, and few great sporting performers have epitomised their time and their roots better than Meads.
He was the embodiment of the All Black style of the 1960s, one he described himself after a particularly grim mullering of the French as "heads down, bottom up and drive, drive for 80 minutes", but he also continued the lineage of exceptional All Black second-rows, combining the power and intimidatory qualities of Maurice Brownlie with the athleticism and all-round play of Tiny White.
Carwyn James and John Reason wrote that "it was as if God had distilled in him the essence of competition", but his creator can also be argued to have distilled the essence of All Blackness, at least in traditional terms. Meads was a farmer - once famously photographed carrying a sheep under his arm. This was happenstance since the animal was ill, but left the impression of a rural behemoth who trained by carrying livestock around.
He was gruff and unshowy, to team-mate Chris Laidlaw "a non-lover of publicity", and he trod the line between intimidation and unacceptable force - falling the wrong side in inflicting the injury that ended brilliant Australian scrum-half Ken Catchpole's career and, in the judgment of referee Kevin Kelleher, in kicking out too close to Scotland scrum-half David Chisholm at Murrayfield in 1967.
That sending off had a much higher profile than the one in a club game in 1955 that might easily have cost him his first New Zealand Colts trial. That offence was followed by a rapidly-convened disciplinary hearing chaired by local official Eddie Walker, who ticked him off firmly, followed him outside and told him "Take no bloody notice of what I said in there. Get yourself down to Palmerston North and get stuck in."
If this sounds like a foretaste, except for the farmer bit, of Martin Johnson, we should not be surprised. England's Rugby World Cup captain played as a youngster in Meads' King Country and his return home after winning junior New Zealand honours was regretted by Meads, who once said: "He was a good one, and it was a pity we let him get away."
The sheer length of Meads' career continues to amaze. He played for North Island as a teenager in 1956 and was still playing for the All Blacks in 1971. If his total of 55 caps looks unimpressive by modern standards, his 133 appearances in all matches for the All Blacks is a hint at the total he might have accumulated nowadays. His tally of 361 first-class matches remains impressive by any standards.
Meads only looked like a giant. At 6 ft 3 in and 16 stone (roughly the same dimensions as Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips) he was no bigger than most international counterparts and smaller than quite a few. He came from a small union, King Country, that only intermittently produced All Blacks - although he characteristically pointed out that this gave him an earlier shot at representative rugby and helped win him a place on the famous junior All Black tour of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1955.
As a child he suffered from scarlet fever and rheumatism and was taught how to knit to give strength and flexibility to the curved hands that resulted. The treatment clearly worked, since there was nothing wrong with his hands in adulthood, where he was famed for his ability to win line-out possession by ripping the ball from opponents.
The impact left by his presence and persona is testified to by the anecdote of a Scottish debutant who cheekily stole a line-out ball in the first few minutes of a match. Meads turned to the youngster and told him in some detail what would happen if he did it again. When asked by friends as to his response, the Scot said: "I told him tae f*** off, but I didnae say it very loud."
True or not, the story speaks of the ogreish aura that clung to Meads, although he was much more than simply a big strong guy. He had ball skills and dropped a goal in his first match for King Country, although the exploit was never repeated and seems equally to have passed out of fashion for the national team he represented with such distinction.
While he is reputed to have remonstrated with Fred Allen when 'The Needle' introduced the All Blacks to a more fluid style in 1967, he had the athleticism and handling skills needed to adapt. He had, after all, spent much of his early career on the flank or at No.8 - a role in which he reckoned he peaked on the 1960 tour of South Africa - before settling into the second-row.
After 10 years of close observation Laidlaw, by nature a critic, reckoned to have spotted "no detectable weaknesses". It took the passing of time to reduce him to human dimensions, but the 1971 Lions still saw him as a formidable adversary as both lock and captain.
He might have coached the All Blacks had he not chosen to work with the rebel New Zealand Cavaliers' tour of apartheid-era South Africa in 1986, but he did serve on the New Zealand Rugby Union board in the 1990s until it was reduced to a smaller, streamlined body with strong business input in the aftermath of the shift to professionalism.
His autobiography sold 57,000 copies - Da Vinci Code-like quantities in a country with a population of three million, even if New Zealanders are much more bookish than stereotypes suggest. Those sales testified to his place in New Zealand life - a sporting legend who at the same time tells the country's inhabitants something about themselves.
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