Colin Meads, Revered New Zealand Rugby Star, Dies at 81

Meads played for the All Blacks for 14 years, from 1957 to 1971, and in 55 international matches, at a time when rugby was an amateur pursuit and a playing career of five years and 20 matches was reckoned substantial.

Nicknamed Pinetree — in his prime he was a strapping 6-foot-3 and 220-plus pounds — Meads was a remorseless force of nature on the field, ripping the ball from opponents with powerful hands that, when he was a child, had been severely weakened by illness.

His athleticism and ball skills were far ahead of those of most players in his position, lock forward. But he was also bruisingly physical, in keeping with the style of play during the All Blacks’ heyday in the 1960s, a stark contrast to the free-flowing teams that have dominated rugby in the 21st century.


Colin Meads in 1968.

Associated Press

“If you play in All Black, there’s not much doubt what your game plan will be,” the Australian forward Stan Pilecki once said.

It was an elbows-out approach that Mead himself summed up after a hard-won victory over France: “Heads down, bottoms up and drive, drive for 80 minutes.” And it was ruthlessly effective.

There was no World Cup before 1987, but there is little doubt that the New Zealand team would have been a winner had the championships been held in the 1960s. Unbeaten in runs of 17 matches between 1961 and 1964, followed by 17 consecutive victories from 1965 to 1969, the All Blacks set new marks for consistency and have rarely been matched since.

Other players from the era also qualified as great, among them the team captains Wilson Whineray and Brian Lochore, the prop forward Ken Gray and Meads’s younger brother, Stan, his partner at lock in the middle of the decade.

But Meads, the only one present for the entire 17-match winning run, was the driving force and point of continuity. The scrum-half Chris Laidlaw reckoned him a player “without any detectable weakness.”

When Meads retired in 1971, his 55 caps — appearances in a match at the international level — were a record for any country. Only three other New Zealanders had even half as many.

“It was as if God had distilled in him the essence of competition,” the English journalist John Reason wrote.

That ferociously competitive drive, taken sometimes beyond the limits of the acceptable, made Meads a somewhat ogre-like figure to fans from other countries. In 1967, playing against Scotland, he became only the second player — and the last New Zealander until July 2017 — to be sent from the field for the remainder of the match for misconduct in an international contest.

In a match a year later, when the Australian scrum-half Ken Catchpole lay trapped in a pile of players, Meads wrenched one of his legs with such force that the injuries ended Catchpole’s career.

Laidlaw recalled Meads as an archetypal New Zealander — “a non-lover of publicity,” as he put it — whose “pleasure is the simple enjoyment he gets out of the game.”

Many saw Meads, a farmer away from the rugby field, as personifying the conservative, male-dominated rural society of midcentury New Zealand, when agriculture still defined both the country’s economy and its psyche. A famous picture of him led to the legend that he trained by carrying sheep around, the duller truth being that the animal was unwell.

When New Zealand was torn in the 1980s by disputes about whether to go on playing South Africa despite its apartheid policies, Meads was firmly on the side of maintaining contact. In 1986, defying international prohibitions on sports engagements in South Africa, he was manager of a “rebel” tour of the country by a New Zealand team after a scheduled All Blacks tour had been canceled.

That action denied him a role at the inaugural World Cup, in 1987. But he managed the All Blacks’ 1994 and 1995 teams.

Meads received numerous honors. His appointment to the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 became a knighthood in 2009, when titles were reintroduced, although he was wont to say, “Don’t call me Sir.”

The journalist and historian Ron Palenski equated Meads with Edmund Hillary, New Zealand’s conqueror of Mount Everest, as “Sir Ed in rugby boots.” In 2005, New Zealand newspapers wrote, without apparent irony, of visiting British rugby fans having “an audience” with him.

His memoirs, published in 1974, sold 57,000 copies at a time when New Zealand’s population was just below three million.

Colin Earl Meads, a descendant of three generations of farmers, was born on June 3, 1936, in Cambridge, in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island, to Vere Meads and the former Ida Grey. When he was 7, his parents moved to a hill farm in the rugged King Country, in the heart of the North Island.

As a child, Meads contracted scarlet and rheumatic fevers, which left him so weakened that he was taught to knit lest his hands become deformed.

At Te Kuiti High School, he was a reluctant student given to taking time off to help his father with sheepshearing and other tasks. Early on, he played for local rugby teams.

He retired from farming in 2009. He is survived by his wife, the former Verna Laing; five children; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

His final public appearance was in June in Te Kuiti, where he watched the unveiling of a statue of him in his youth on the rugby field.


Colin Meads and his wife, Vera, in June at an unveiling of a statue of him in Te Kuiti, New Zealand.

Associated Press

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