Sir Colin Meads: 1936-2017

Great tributes typically start with a personal anecdote; a tale that epitomises the true character of the soul that has just departed this plane.

In the case of Sir Colin Meads, many of the pieces written to mark his passing at the age of 81 will lack that personal remembrance on the part of the writer.

The footage of Sir Colin Meads in the video above is from interviews conducted for Ric Salizzo's book and TV project 'I Know This To Be True'

Because the greatness of Pinetree - as he was most often known despite having attained the title ‘Sir’ in 2009 - transcended multiple generations, many of us tasked with remembering him on the day of his death didn’t cross paths with the legendary All Blacks forward during his playing pomp, nor even during the period when he was most active in rugby administration.

For most New Zealanders, the legend of Pinetree has been learned from tales recounted second- or third-hand, from grainy, pillar-boxed footage of a large man moving freakishly fast while holding a rugby ball in one out-sized hand.

The best we can do is borrow from those who did rub shoulders with the man whose status in Kiwi sporting lore is unrivalled, even by the greatest of our greats.

Beloved as much for his man of the land, genuine Kiwi bloke persona as his sporting talent, Pinetree cast quite a shadow. His physical stature and aura of greatness meant approaching him required a significant amount of fortitude, even for hardened hacks.

Former New Zealand Herald rugby writer Wynne Gray recalls a time he requested an interview with then team manager Meads through All Blacks media manager Rick Salizzo during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Salizzo was non-committal about his prospects but said he would see what he could do. He returned shortly later to say that unfortunately the interview would not happen.

Years later, Salizzo would admit that he had “gone off and hid behind a pillar” as he had been too intimidated to even approach Meads.

Gray would have a similar experience himself during an All Blacks tour of France, when he requested a post-match interview with the rising young star Jonah Lomu.

“No,” said Meads. “The game is over.”

Gray cautiously pointed out that that was the time when journalists typically conducted their interviews - but received the same response; “the game is over”.

“This time he narrowed those menacing eyebrows,” recalls Gray. “Some managers you might mess around with - and others you wouldn’t.”

Despite his occasional reluctance to engage with the media, Meads was in fact a remarkably accessible national hero.

Sports photographer Peter Bush tells the story of wandering onto the Meads family farm uninvited in the hope of getting some good candid shots and discovering Colin and his brother Stan docking lambs.

“Don't just stand there Bushy, come and give us a hand,” Colin said.

Bush ended up snapping a pic of Pinetree holding a lamb under each arm.

"I joked to [a British journalist] that Piney would carry those same sheep around right up to the beginning of the rugby season as a fitness exercise and he printed it as a serious story in the Mirror, which I thought pretty funny,” says Bush. “It just added to the legend though.”

While he never earned much of an income from rugby, a persona synonymous with old school values allowed Meads to promote products from tanalised fence posts, utes and cheese, to a finance company and a foot-vibrating circulation booster.

He was also a hugely entertaining after-dinner speaker.

The gruff exterior housed a keen sense of humour, says Gray.

“As you’d see on the rugby field, he had a brilliant sense of timing. You can see that in the countless clips from his speaking engagements. He was a natural.”

Meads played 133 matches for the All Blacks between 1957 and 1971, including 55 tests - 11 as captain.

Sir Colin Meads' statue stands in Te Kuiti. Photo: Alexia Russell

Like most great athletes whose reputations transcend generations, he was an innovator. In his first outing for King Country in 1955 he confounded the general expectations of locks by scoring a try and also kicking a drop goal.

That athleticism would be the hallmark of a career that spanned almost two decades. Meads played 361 first-class matches, a feat only recently surpassed by Keven Mealamu.

The nickname 'Pinetree' was given to him by team-mate Ken Briscoe when he toured Japan in 1958 with the New Zealand Under-23 team. At 1.92m tall and 100kg, he wasn’t especially big. The name was more a recognition of his overall physical presence.

That presence made him a hero in New Zealand and the face of the All Blacks internationally. His endeavours, however, weren’t always appreciated by his opponents

In 1967 against Scotland he became just the second All Black to be sent off in a Test, for aiming a kick in the direction of an opponent, while Australians also took issue with Meads wrenching Ken Catchpole's leg in a ruck in 1968, causing an horrific career-ending injury.

His positive deeds, though, would greatly outweigh the negative, and in 1970 his legend grew further when he played on during a tour of South Africa with a broken arm thanks to a specially made leather brace.

Tributes for Meads poured in immediately following the news of his passing on Sunday. Perhaps the most apposite came from the politician Winston Peters.

"He wore his celebrity on a sound and sensible set of shoulders," Peters said.

"He was a quintessential unassuming New Zealander - one of those we feel especially proud of as a nation.

"We will miss him."

Sir Colin Meads, rugby player, born 3 June 1936; died August 20 2017.

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