Colin Meads, the ma­gi­cian

Herald on Sunday - - SPORT -

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.

Chris­tine Cor­nege

A fa­mil­iar man in a fa­mil­iar pose in a fa­mil­iar set­ting — Colin Meads at the Waitete Rugby Club with wife Verna.

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