WELLINGTON, (Reuters) - The contribution of All Blacks great Colin Meads to the game he bestrode as a colossus was never underestimated, but in later life the man known as ‘Piney’ never looked happier than when talking rugby over a pint of beer.
Meads died at the age of 81 on Sunday after long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Nicknamed ‘Pinetree’ by a team mate in 1958, Meads came to epitomise the aura of the All Blacks in the 20th Century and helped cement their place as the most successful team in world rugby.
He was named as New Zealand’s Player of the 20th Century in 1999 and listed by the New Zealand Herald in 2014 as the greatest All Blacks player of all time.
Meads played for the All Blacks from 1957 until 1971, racking up a then national record 55 test matches and playing another 78 games for the team.
His record tally of 133 games stood until former Richie McCaw superceded it in 2014 against South Africa, the younger All Blacks great going on to make 149 appearances for the team.
The increase in the number of tests played in the modern era might account for that disparity but changing times have done nothing to diminish Meads’s place in New Zealand sporting lore.
In a team stacked full of players considered some of the greats of New Zealand and world rugby, Meads was the man elevated to global renown, much as Jonah Lomu would be in the 1990s and indeed McCaw in the 2000s.
“He is the purest and most ferocious All Black there has ever been,” Donald McRae wrote in the Guardian in 2002.
“Growing up in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s, I remember our terrified awe of Meads. Long before Star Wars, the giant lock appeared as an utterly compelling Darth Vader.”
A farmer for his entire working life, Meads personified the stereotype of the All Blacks forward as a man of the land, carving out a living in a wild environment that takes a battle to wrangle but is never tamed.
Immensely strong and physically fit due to his farm work, team mates and opponents would describe him as “tough and uncompromising” and legend built that he was all but immune to physical pain.
He famously broke his arm against Eastern Transvaal in 1970 but played on, commenting after the fracture was confirmed: “At least we won the bloody game”.
Meads was considered the enforcer for the All Blacks — the player who did not, as former sports journalist and author Ron Palenski once said, take a backwards step.
“He had a few confrontations with other players. Generally he came off the better,” Palenski said in a 2005 documentary about New Zealand’s top 100 history makers.
Meads himself described the reputation as more to do with the game at the time, when the players tended to sort out any trouble the referee was unable to see, or unwilling to address.
“In our days sometimes a lot of teams used illegal tactics and they had to be stopped because the referee didn’t pick them up,” Meads told the New Zealand Herald in 2014.
“So it was dealt with accordingly.”
His reputation for the thuggery was not helped by becoming only the second All Blacks player to be sent off in a test against Scotland in 1967, nor by the incident the following year when he ended the career of Australia’s Ken Catchpole by tearing the hamstring off the scrumhalf’s bone.
“That was unfortunate that one,” Meads told the New Zealand Herald in 2014. “I didn’t do it purposely to hurt him, I had hold of one leg and his other leg was stuck and he did the splits and was hurt terribly.”
It was a reputation that Meads was happy to cultivate in later life, however, when he found a niche as an after-dinner speaker, regaling crowds with some of the tall tales and myths that had attached themselves to his name.
But to New Zealanders, he was much more than the mindless thug that northern hemisphere journalists and Australians with memories of the Catchpole incident would care to remember.
While he played at lock, he had blistering speed and massive hands which helped with the sublime ball handling skills that would not look out of place in the modern game.
“He was a lock who was supposed to have his head down in scrums and occasionally get two feet off the ground in the lineouts and do nothing else,” New Zealand rugby writer Wynne Gray said in 2014.
“But here was this guy running with the ball in his hand that looked like a small egg, dummying to other players.
“He was the left, right, and centre of New Zealand rugby because he played at such a high standard for a long period of time.
“He was numero uno.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney