WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Tributes flowed from politicians, former team mates and current players on Sunday as New Zealand mourned the death of All Blacks great Colin Meads at the age of 81 following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Meads, who in 1999 was named New Zealand’s greatest rugby player of the 20th Century, was diagnosed with cancer last year and died in hospital in his home town of Te Kuiti on Sunday.
In a sign of his importance to the people of the rugby-mad nation, his death was announced by Prime Minister Bill English.
“This is a sad day for New Zealand rugby and for New Zealand,” English said in the statement.
”He was not only a great All Black but also a genuinely good New Zealand bloke.
“He represented what it means to be a New Zealander. He was no-nonsense, reliable, hardworking, warm and very generous with his time.”
His family issued their own statement through New Zealand Rugby, expressing their thanks for the expressions of sympathy from the local community and from rugby fans worldwide.
“Dad led a full life,” his youngest daughter Shelley Mitchell said. “He loved being an All Black and he loved his family dearly. We will miss him terribly.”
Meads, nicknamed as ‘Pinetree’ at an early age, was renowned for his toughness and uncompromising attitude in an international playing career that spanned 14 years.
He played 133 games for the All Blacks and even if only 55 of them were tests, that was still a record for the national team.
The rangy lock came to epitomise the stereotypical no-nonsense All Blacks forward but was also lauded for pace and ball-handling skills that were rarely seen in tight forwards of his day.
His death was widely felt around New Zealand on Sunday, briefly interrupting campaigning for the upcoming general election.
The leader of the main opposition party, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, opened the launch of their election campaign in Auckland by praising Meads, while New Zealand First leader Winston Peters touched on his egalitarian nature.
“He was a quintessential unassuming New Zealander - one of those we feel especially proud of as a nation,” Peters said in a statement. “We will miss him.”
Meads died the day after the world champion All Blacks had opened their Rugby Championship campaign with a 54-34 victory over Australia and the team expressed their sorrow from Sydney.
”This is an incredibly sad day,“ All Blacks captain Kieran Read said. ”Sir Colin was an icon of our game.
“I met him a few times and he was always keen to share a beer and have a yarn. On behalf of all players, our thoughts go out to his family at this time.”
Coach Steve Hansen, who places great emphasis on the place of the All Blacks in New Zealand sporting folklore, said Meads had been one of the players who built the reputation of the team.
“His achievements in the black jersey are part of the All Blacks legacy,” Hansen said.
“His loss will be felt by rugby people all over the world.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney