Watched by his wife Verna and with his brother and New Zealand second row partner Stan at his side, he lifted the covers off the 2.7-metre, blackened bronze of “Pinetree” captured in full flight, rugby ball in giant, outstretched hand. And then Meads told his audience he regretted he was not “as fit as I used to be”.
He was 81 and stricken with pancreatic cancer and, but he pledged to try and have a few beers at the function that followed in the rural North Island town that has become known as Meadsville.
That was in June. Two months later, on August 28, Te Kuiti saw another huge crowd gather to pay their final respects to a man whose hard-nosed playing style on the pitch and gentlemanly, humble demeanour off it, came to represent his country and the Kiwi spirit to an admiring world.
Meads’s stature and the respect he commanded from team-mates and opponents alike during a hallowed 55-Test, 133-game All Blacks career from 1957 to 1971 that was a golden era for New Zealand rugby, including a then-world record winning run of 17 consecutive Tests between 1965 and 69 though his final cap came in a losing series to the British & Irish Lions.
This summer’s Lions tour manager John Spencer was a player in ‘71 and 46 years later he made it his business to break from the schedule and travel south from Hamilton to the statue unveiling on June 19.
Spencer had played against Meads on the Lions’ victorious 1971 tour and he said he had made the trip to Te Kuiti “in respect of and my friendship with the greatest warrior of rugby”.
“Colin was an awesome character on and off the field. He was incredibly strong and he was a leader of men.
“He had such a reputation as an awesome player and the great thing about rugby back then is you just made the most incredible friendships with the people you played against.”
Rugby “back then” was very much an amateur game, its ethos personified by men like Meads, who throughout his playing career and beyond maintained his sheep-farming station in King Country. He was born in 1936 and raised on a sheep farm just outside Te Kuiti, crediting his fitness levels and muscular physique — he would grow to 1.92m (6ft 3ins) and weigh in at 100kg (15st 10lbs) — on his
agricultural upbringing and lifestyle.
It stood him in good stead for the rugby field, whether it was for his beloved Waitete Rugby Club in the Te Kuiti hinterland, which he joined at the age of 14, for his province King Country or the All Blacks.
he “Pinetree” nickname was coined by New Zealand Under-23 team-mate Ken Briscoe in 1958 whilst on a tour to Japan and though smaller than most professional locks, and many backs, in the current game, the moniker was more than just about feet and inches. Meads stood tall as a colossus in the amateur game, a rugged and impressive leader whose presence could intimidate opponents.
On the All Blacks’ 1970 tour to South Africa, his legendary status as a physical, uncompromising adversary was further enhanced when he played on and finished a victory over Eastern Transvaal having broken his arm in the game. He missed the first two Tests but having treated the injury himself with horse liniment, Meads returned to play the third and final Test with a specially-made leather guard.
There were lows, not least when he became only the second All Black to be sent off, dismissed for dangerous play against Scotland in 1967 by Irish referee Kevin Kelleher. It would be 50 years before a third New Zealand international would incur a similar penalty, Sonny Bill Williams dismissed during this June’s second Test against the Lions.
And though he recovered from a serious back injury following a car accident in 1971, he did not play for the All Blacks again.
Meads retired as a player in 1973, at the age of 37 to settle down on his 250-acre farm with Verna and their five children but the game he loved was never too far away. He spent time as chairman of the King Country Union while also serving as a selector and coach of the now-disbanded North Island side before national service called on Pinetree once more and he was elected to the national selection panel in 1986.
Sidelined from that role soon after for coaching an
unsanctioned Cavaliers tour to apartheid South Africa,
he was forgiven six years later and elected to the New Zealand Rugby Union Council that had previously banished him. Two more years on and Meads was named manager of the All Blacks side he had once captained 11 times.
He finally stepped away from the game, in an official capacity at least, in 1996, but his public persona was maintained in New Zealand through media appearances and after-dinner speaking as honours continued to roll in for a lifetime of devotion to rugby.
Named New Zealand’s player of the century in 1999, Meads was knighted in the New Zealand honours list of 2009 and inducted to the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014.
The statue in Te Kuiti may well have meant more to him than all of that. It certainly moved the desperately ill Meads to tell his brother Stan on the morning of the ceremony in June: “I’d better get out of my pyjamas and put a suit on.”
His place in both the New Zealand and rugby pantheons had long been assured but Colin Meads still had a duty to perform.