All Blacks captain with reputation as one of the hardest players in rugby union
Colin Meads obituary: born June 3rd, 1936; died August 20th, 2017
Colin Meads in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2007. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images
Few sportsmen or sportswomen have so defined their country as did Colin Meads, the former New Zealand rugby captain, who has died at the age of 81. A man uncomfortable with fame, he early in his career described himself as a “country hick in the big time” and saw himself as a father first, a farmer second and an All Black incidentally.
Meads’s international career spanned 14 years and covered three decades, from his debut against Australia in 1957 to his final appearance against the 1971 Lions when he was 35. He broke his back later that year in a car crash and his body was encased in plaster, but typical of a man who had played on against Eastern Transvaal in 1970 after suffering a broken arm, and who had returned to the field against France in 1967 after being viciously kicked in the head as he lay on the ground, he was back on the field within five months. He was expected to tour the British Isles in the autumn of 1972, only to make himself unavailable because of differences with the New Zealand coach Bob Duff.
Meads’s 55 caps were then a world record, but in 1967 he feared his career would be defined by his sending-off against Scotland at Murrayfield late in the game. Dismissals were then rare in rugby union, a sport in which players enforced their own disciplinary code without the hazards of citing commissioners or numerous camera angles.
The New Zealand second row Cyril Brownlie had until then been the only player ordered off during a full international, playing for New Zealand against England in 1925, and referees tended to have a high tolerance threshold, one player told after being punched for the third time in a match that he would be sent off if it happened again as he must be doing something wrong.
Meads had received more than a few warnings in his career before his sending off in Scotland, including one earlier in that match by the Irish referee Kevin Kelleher for vigorous rucking, and he had earned a reputation as one of the hardest, most uncompromising players in the game.
He did not, though, see violence as a tactic and none of his acts, which included a punch that broke the jaw of the Wales hooker Jeff Young in 1969, was gratuitous. He believed that an opponent who got away with cheating, by lying on the wrong side of the ball and not rolling away, or obstructing a player off the ball, was leaving himself open to retribution, which would only be administered after a warning. “No one will beat me by constant use of dubious tactics,” he once said. “I am no angel, but there is no worse player on the rugby field than the one who is looking for trouble.”
The offence for which he was dismissed seemed to be down to his reputation rather than his action: as he chased a rolling ball, he stuck out his foot just before the Scotland outhalf David Chisholm picked it up. Meads got some of the ball but more of his opponent and was banned for two matches after a hearing in which he was not allowed to give evidence. He came to exchange Christmas cards with Kelleher, and one member of the disciplinary panel, England’s Cyril Gadney, sent him a London Society of Referees tie with a note saying that it was a “small gift to one of the greatest players our splendid game has ever produced. I consider myself lucky to know you as a friend.”
Meads had been sent off before, in 1955 when he was playing for his local club in King Country, Waitete, a few days before he was due to play in a North Island Colts’ trial, for tripping an opponent and pushing him to the ground. He appeared before a disciplinary panel that contained the King Country selector, Eddie Walker. “He confronted his golden-haired boy with a withering full-frontal attack,” wrote Alex Veysey in his 1974 official biography of Meads. “This was no way to play the game of rugby, he said, and demanded to see Meads outside. There he grabbed the bemused young boy by the arm and said: ‘Take no bloody notice of what I said in there. Get stuck into that Colts match.’”
Meads spent his career with King Country, making 139 appearances for the province, but he was born in the Waikato region, in the town of Cambridge. He was known for his unstinting work as a sheep farmer, showing the stamina of his great-grandfather Zachariah Meads, who at the age of 12 had left the family home in Wellington after a row with his father, walking 120 miles before reaching Wanganui, where he became a farmer, an occupation taken up by Meads’ grandfather and then his father, Vere. Meads’s mother was Ida (nee Gray).
The family moved to King Country when Meads was seven and he remained there for the rest of his life in Te Kuiti, a small town he was surprised to find that the Queen knew about, when he was introduced to her in 1963 during a New Zealand tour. His brother, Stan, also played for New Zealand and won 30 caps, 11 in the second row alongside Meads.
Meads started his Test career in the back row and his trademark was running at pace with the ball in one hand, his grip secure after a bout of scarlet fever when he was nine left him with the fingers of both hands slightly clawed in. A skilful player despite his menacing countenance – he dropped a goal early in his career and played one match on the wing – he played 133 matches for New Zealand and for five years from 1965 was only on the losing side once in 20 Tests.
He went into management after retiring, but he was ostracised after coaching the New Zealand Cavaliers on the 1986 rebel tour to South Africa, returning to manage the 1995 World Cup squad. He was appointed MBE in 1971 and knighted in 2009.
He was given the nickname “Pinetree” by, according to Veysey, the Taranaki hooker Roger Boon, during the 1958 New Zealand Colts tour to Japan. It stuck, often abbreviated to “Piney”, and summed up a player no one could fell. “No player encapsulates a nation’s attitude to sport like Colin Meads does for New Zealand,” wrote Mervyn Davies, the Wales No 8 who played in the 1971 Lions series, in his autobiography. “In a land of rugby giants, he still reigns supreme and is regarded by many as the greatest ever All Black. He was the flag-bearer of New Zealand manhood.”
Meads is survived by his wife, Verna, whom he married in 1957; their five children, Karen, Kelvin, Rhonda, Glynn and Shelley; 14 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.