Colin Meads, the magician
The stubby beer bottle looked like a thimble in Colin Meads’ paw. His hands were the size of dinner plates; only the top of the neck of the bottle protruded.
As has been recorded elsewhere, Meads was a capable drinker. This is not said to glorify drinking, nor to underline some macho concept of a real man being able to handle his alcohol; though it is an important context to note the Tree was in control of his drink, not the other way round.
But if you were with CE Meads, All Black No 583, in a social situation, trust me — you noticed he had a way with the suds.
We were in an Auckland restaurant in 2004, the inaugural year of the Herald on Sunday and the Pinetree Awards, an alternative set of rugby awards overseen by the great man. We were lunching to celebrate the end of the judging.
Mead’s choice was beer. His method of drinking fascinated me. The bottle stayed in his grasp; he never released it to stand alone on the table. It was within his grip constantly, almost as if he thought it would scuttle off if he let go and then, with a weary farmer’s sigh and heavy tread, he’d have to head off and herd it back — like an errant sheep which had fled the pen.
Every now and then, almost imperceptibly, the great arm would bend, the bottle raised slowly to that craggy head. He never gulped nor drained, his method of imbibing seemed a gentle sip. But the bottle would suddenly be empty.
Just as suddenly, another would appear. I kid you not, ladies and gentlemen, I swear the Tree had a magical ability to grow another beer bottle in his hand. He never moved, never went to the bar. The beer seemed to just . . . materialise.
It was like having lunch with Marvello The Magician . . . instead of finding a coin behind your ear, he would sprout beer bottles in the palm of his hand. Bugger your rabbits out of a hat; this was meaningful magic, delivered with quiet dignity.
The magic didn’t stop there. The Pinetree Awards were a whimsical look back at the rugby season; only semi-serious, it was a mark of Meads’ put-something-back philosophy that he even consented to head these awards with a Sunday newspaper no one had heard of and which involved a gentle bit of piss-taking.
But he rarely, if ever, said no to requests. At lunch, he was subjected to the wittering of some journalists more than usually nervous in the company of greatness. He didn’t say much — but when he did, the table fell reverently silent as he ground out a few words in that basso profundo.
I first got to know him a little, curiously enough, when some of New Zealand rugby had fallen a bit out of love with him over the 1986 rebel Cavaliers tour of South Africa. Meads was an All Blacks selector but joined the rebels as coach — leading to a great many debates, most of the media disapproving of the tour.
Even then, he didn’t say no. I can remember ringing him regarding the Cavaliers, only to have the phone answered, as always, by Dame Verna. She proceeded, upon hearing the identity of the caller, to give me the gentlest, most dignified — and therefore the most excoriating — bollocking I have ever received before handing the phone to Colin.
Dignity was always at home in the Meads household. I went to Te Kuiti in 2010 to interview him for a book I was writing on the life and times of New Zealand Herald sportswriter Terry ‘TP’ McLean.
Meads was in shorts and shirt, a great tuft of chest hair attempting to escape over the collar, matching the bushy eyebrows which looked capable of trapping passing blowflies. Verna had prepared a spread — I remember enormous sandwiches — and we talked for hours about TP and All Black rugby.
As ever, the quiet dignity of the man dominated. Media types and rugby players do not always get on, especially these days, and even in the amateur days some All Blacks did not take kindly to criticism like that handed out by TP.
But Meads, tipping his hat to the influence McLean had as a journalist with New Zealand rugby, allowed one regret — not enlisting McLean’s aid to campaign for the correct selection of the 1971 All Blacks, the only ones to lose a series to the British and Irish Lions.
That selection, said Meads, omitted players he thought would have won the series; he bitterly regretted not tapping McLean on the shoulder and organising a media-driven campaign to get the right personnel chosen.
His humility was also shown when Meads, as a selector, allowed McLean might have got it right and Meads not on occasion. He was moved to say about a man he had called “a proper asshole” when he first met him: “Terry McLean got it right 90 per cent of the time. He was a great writer of rugby. He knew rugby inside out and loved the game and I always liked that.
“He used to criticise us but he always did it fairly. You knew you had played well yourself — but you also knew it if TP said so . . . I think he was always fair and he usually got it right.”
They were different days, of course, and it is hard to imagine any current All Black being so analytical of a rugby writer. But that analysis was also a measure of Meads the man — humble, generous, thoughtful, considered and always in love with the game.
I swear the Tree had a magical ability to grow another beer bottle in his hand. He never moved, never went to the bar.
A familiar man in a familiar pose in a familiar setting — Colin Meads at the Waitete Rugby Club with wife Verna.