Heart of a Pine­tree

By his own ad­mis­sion no an­gel as a player, All Blacks leg­end Colin Meads sur­passed all in our es­teem.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Paul Thomas

By his own ad­mis­sion no an­gel as a player, All Blacks leg­end Colin Meads sur­passed all in our es­teem.

Fif­teen years ago, I wrote of Colin Meads: “Like the myth­i­cal fron­tiers­men of the Amer­i­can West, he came to per­son­ify his coun­try­men’s mas­cu­line ideal: prac­ti­cal, de­void of airs and graces, stoic, re­silient, res­o­lute, fair-minded but un­com­pro­mis­ing and al­ways will­ing to take up a phys­i­cal chal­lenge. He cleared a 200-acre block of hill-coun­try scrub, he car­ried a sheep un­der each arm, he took on the Spring­boks with a bro­ken arm, he was held in fear and awe by op­po­nents the world over.”

The con­sen­sus around that ideal has frayed some­what in the in­ter­ven­ing years, but “Pine­tree” Meads re­mained larger than life, the hill-coun­try farmer from cen­tral cast­ing, a heart­land icon and leg­end of our na­tional game. He in­spired nos­tal­gia for a sim­pler, home­lier, more-egal­i­tar­ian New Zealand in which Jack and his mas­ter weren’t on dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent pay scales, a time be­fore grid­lock, P, pay tele­vi­sion, coloured boots and busy­bod­ies por­ing over match footage for any­thing re­sem­bling over-vig­or­ous play; when what hap­pened on the field stayed on the field and what hap­pened off the field stayed be­hind the air­port toi­let door.

As gen­er­ally hap­pens with larg­erthan-life fig­ures, his rep­u­ta­tion took on a life of its own. Peter Bush, the famed pho­tog­ra­pher and Meads’ friend, tour­ing com­pan­ion and out-matched drink­ing buddy, ob­served in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that “Piney’s aura made him a very hard act to pre­cede or fol­low. When we ap­peared to­gether at a char­ity do, I was work­ing on my speech right up to the last minute. ‘You’re look­ing pretty tense,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen you like this.’ What he didn’t seem to grasp was that I ac­tu­ally had to make

a speech; he just had to re­main up­right and be Pine­tree Meads.

“He started off by drain­ing a beer; that just about had them rolling in the aisles. Then he made a few in­nocu­ous re­marks and they went nuts. If he’d said, ‘You look like a bunch of chimps with red ar­ses that got loose from the zoo’, they still would’ve roared their ap­proval.”

GI­ANT, NOT SAINT

Sir Colin Meads, who died last week­end aged 81, was an All Black from 1957 to 1971 and the first to play 50 tests in an era when there were a few per year as op­posed to more than a dozen. As a player, he was way ahead of his time in his range of skills and ath­leti­cism and very much of his time in his mas­tery of the dark arts. The chap­ter head­ing “More sinned against than sin­ning?” in his 1974 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Colin Meads: All Black, writ­ten with Alex Vey­sey, must have caused in­cred­u­lous snig­gers wher­ever rugby is played.

He con­fessed that he was “no bloody an­gel. If I can gain the ad­van­tage by a bit of games­man­ship, I’ll be the first to do it.” His reper­toire in­cluded in­tim­i­dat­ing his op­po­site num­bers into not com­pet­ing at li­ne­outs, which were then messy af­frays bear­ing lit­tle re­sem­blance to to­day’s in­tri­cate en­sem­ble ma­noeu­vres.

Bush shared a story told to him by long-serv­ing Taranaki lock Ian Elia­son. In the dress­ing shed be­fore a match against Meads’ prov­ince, King Coun­try, the Taranaki and later All Blacks coach Peter Burke urged Elia­son to assert him­self: ‘Don’t fall for this Pine­tree bull­shit – just give him the el­bow.’

“I thought he’s right – this guy’s full of bull­shit and I’m not hav­ing it. So at the first li­ne­out, I pushed off his in­side shoul­der and won the pill, no trou­ble. He gave me a look. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, big bloody deal.’ Se­cond li­ne­out, same thing. He said, ‘Don’t do that again, pal.’ Third li­ne­out I did it again and woke up on the side­line half an hour later.”

One could be ap­palled, and it’s fair to say Meads wasn’t uni­ver­sally ad­mired by his con­tem­po­raries. One could quote Mark Twain: “To ar­rive at a just es­ti­mate of a renowned man’s char­ac­ter, one must judge it by the stan­dards of his time, not ours.” And one could point out that true hard men take it as well as dish it out: over the course of his long ca­reer, Meads copped the lot with­out protest or com­plaint and kept com­ing.

When Meads was sent off – for a harm­less in­dis­cre­tion – in a test against Scot­land at Mur­ray­field in 1967, he was sport­ing both a ban­dage and head­gear to pro­tect a 14-stitch wound, the re­sult of be­ing kicked in the head by a French­man a week ear­lier. Ir­ish and Bri­tish Lions half­back turned jour­nal­ist Andy Mul­li­gan wrote that Meads “knew no fear. And no limit to the drive of the mind over his own mat­ter.”

His post-re­tire­ment in­volve­ment in rugby was var­ied, some­times dis­tin­guished, oc­ca­sion­ally ques­tion­able. For all his ap­par­ent lack of guile, he ended up be­com­ing a power be­hind the throne on the New Zealand Rugby Foot­ball Union (NZRFU) coun­cil. His prom­i­nent role in the 1986 rebel Cava­liers tour of South Africa while he was still an All Blacks se­lec­tor was naive, to put a gen­er­ous spin on it, and fore­shad­owed his some­what equiv­o­cal be­hav­iour for an All Blacks man­ager and NZRFU coun­cil­lor in 1995 when a Kerry Packer-backed Aus­tralian en­tre­pre­neur sought to hi­jack the elite game. In both in­stances he put loy­alty to the play­ers ahead of loy­alty to the NZRFU and, some would ar­gue, the game.

But th­ese episodes did him no last­ing harm. If any­thing, by dis­lodg­ing him – briefly – from his pedestal and re­veal­ing a ten­dency to fol­low his heart rather than his head, they topped up the reser­voir of pub­lic af­fec­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion.

Meads never claimed to be rugby’s con­science – he had too much dirt un­der his fin­ger­nails for that – but his old­school views de­liv­ered in an au­then­tic Kiwi-bloke voice spiced with sly, straight­faced hu­mour made him a tal­is­man for those who felt dis­en­fran­chised by rugby’s abrupt and some­times clumsy em­brace of pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

MAN OF MANY TALES

Of the mul­ti­tude of Meads sto­ries, per­haps the de­fin­i­tive one emerged from that un­happy game at Mur­ray­field half a cen­tury ago. Ge­orge Mitchell, a 24-year-old debu­tant, was handed the daunt­ing as­sign­ment of mark­ing Meads. Af­ter­wards, he re­counted to wide-eyed team­mates an ex­change that took place as the first li­ne­out of the game as­sem­bled. It was more mono­logue than di­a­logue, es­sen­tially a de­tailed ex­po­si­tion of the ter­ri­ble things Meads would do to him if he had the temer­ity to com­pete for the ball.

Af­ter a long si­lence, Mitchell was asked, “What did you say?”

“I told him to f--- off,” said Mitchell. “But I didn’t say it very loud.”

Big softie: Meads with ac­tor Keisha CastleHughes dur­ing a Lis­tener photo shoot in 2004.

Larger than life: op­po­site page (top) and far right, Colin Meads on his King Coun­try farm in 2001; above, as an All Blacks tri­al­list in 1956; right, on the charge in 1970 against South Africa in the fourth test at El­lis Park, Jo­han­nes­burg, won by the Spring­boks 20-17.

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