At first sight, the Australia-New Zealand match played at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 19th May 1957 looks as inconsequential as international matches come.
It was, it’s true, the first Test match to be televised in Australia. But in the 1950s, playing Australia was what the All Blacks did in the years without tours to, or visitors from, Britain or South Africa. They usually won, and did so this time. Their 25-11 win was their ninth in sequence that would extend into double figures, the following year.
But since the visit of the 1956 Springboks was the year after the All Blacks had reached their peak that decade in terms of both performance and intensity, there was something of a change of generations in their team. Four players made their debuts. The backs Frank McMullen, who marked his first Test with a try, and Terry Lineen would by themselves have represented a decent effort by the selectors.
Both would be regular choices for the next few years. But next to the two forwards they look like footnotes. In any listing of the best international players to have made their debuts together, back rower Colin Meads and prop Wilson Whineray would figure very near the top.
Only the very greatest players are remembered half a century after their prime, and these two still figure in New Zealand’s collective rugby memory — admittedly the most complete and retentive of any nations — as vividly as much more recent giants.
They represented contrasting and complementary threads in New Zealand’s rugby traditions. Whineray, 21, was both urban and urbane. He was an Aucklander who had gone to the city’s prestigious Grammar School before winning one of the New Zealand government’s rural cadetships.
The great New Zealand writer Terry McLean would later write of him that he ‘seemed incapable of losing his temper’ and that as a 28 year old ‘mentally he had the maturity of a man of at least 40’.
Meads, 20, was a farmer from the King Country, his temper already a matter of disciplinary record. He had come close to losing his first step on the representative ladder, the New Zealand under 21 tour to Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] two years earlier through an inconveniently-timed sending-off in a club match.
“Whineray and I, and a good few others came in. Suddenly from not being good enough in 1956, in we came, into places made for us.”
Colin Meads on All Blacks selection
But he already had a formidable physical presence, plus a range of skills not always associated with 6-foot-4 in forwards, having dropped a goal on his King Country debut.
That tour was the first time they had met. Whineray recalled Meads as “a big gangling guy who seemed to have a yard of arm hanging below his sleeve and a yard of leg below his pants”, who on one occasion asked: “Where the hell’s Ceylon anyway?”
Meads remembered Whineray, whose cadetship had led to years with rural South Island unions who had picked him long before he would have got near to the Auckland team as “so far advanced on the rest of us. He’d had about 20 representative matches; some of us hadn’t even played senior rugby.”
On the fringes of All Black selection in 1956, Meads was told that he was too young at 19 while Whineray lost out to rugged veteran Kevin Skinner, whose scrummaging and boxing skills helped turn the series.
In those days major series were followed by retirements and rethinks in much the way that World Cups are nowadays. Skinner, locks Tiny White and Bob Duff and back rowers Bill Clark and Peter Jones did not play for the All Blacks again.
As Meads was to recall: “Whineray and I, and a good few others came in. Suddenly from not being good enough in 1956, in we came, into places made for us.” Their All Black debuts were a week before the Test, against New South Wales.
It was Whineray who earned notice first, described in reports of the Sydney Test as “a threat in all phases”. But the second Test at Brisbane, also a comfortable All Black win, offered a warning of Meads’ all-round qualities as he was switched to the wing after an injury in the backs and scored his first international try.
Both then went on the junior All Black tour of Japan, with Whineray as captain. By the following year, when Australia came on a return visit to New Zealand, he was captain of the senior All Blacks and would remain so [apart from a sabbatical while completing his degree in 1964] until his retirement in 1965.
All Blacks’ Colin Meads was described as ‘the most iconic New Zealander’. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
His 30 Tests as captain comprehensively surpassed Cliff Porter’s previous record of seven and would remain a record for more than 30 years, finally overtaken by Sean Fitzpatrick. It took Richie McCaw to take his record for the length of time as All Black captain.
And Meads was among the fixed points in Whineray’s all-conquering teams. That they were giants is obvious, but there were missteps on the way to that status.
Whineray’s scrummaging was often criticised, and McLean remembered vividly his shock and distress at the criticism he received when the All Blacks dropped a Test to Australia in 1958. Meads recalled him “developing as a fine leader”, but that “I didn’t feel he was a great captain until after 1960.”
Meads has gone down in history as one of the great locks, but in an era of fierce competition when positions were more flexible than nowadays he played a fair amount of his international rugby as a back rower.
Whineray remembered the young Meads as having “the physique of a lock, but not the mind of a lock”. Those mental attributes took time to mature. He was dropped for the first Test of the 1959 Lions series and again in 1962, with younger brother Stan taking his place, for the start of the series against the Springboks.
Both he and Whineray, who reckoned himself to have “the temperament of a loose forward”, rather hankered after playing No. 8, leading to some ferocious mickey-taking between the two when both had unsuccessful afternoons in the position on the 1963 tour of Britain. But by then both were on their way to the All Black pantheon.
McLean, whose 1963 tour account “Willie Away” — named for the line-out peel-off move borrowed from the French and perfected by Whineray — may represent the peak of his own unique contribution to New Zealand rugby culture as he wrote: “I would unhesitatingly name him as New Zealand’s greatest captain.”
He also earned his place in the roll of great rugby one-liners, stunning rugged Bok prop Piet du Toit, notorious for testing the outer limits of scrummaging legality, by asking: “Do you have to spoil every match you play in?”
New Zealand captain Wilson Whineray charges towards the try line as the All Blacks beat the Barbarians 36-3 in 1964. L. Burt/PA Images via Getty Images
What criticism there was of Whineray’s leadership, notably from the acutely intelligent scrum-half Chris Laidlaw, focused on a lack of inclusiveness or rapport with younger players. Laidlaw in particular felt he and other senior players, including Meads, let Earl Kirton take far too much of the blame for the All Black defeat at Newport in 1963.
There was an irony in this. Whineray forever after praised the way in which 1957 skipper ‘Ponty’ Reid and coach Dick Everest had been willing to talk through matches afterwards: “It was a great help to young players like myself”.
He argued that matches developed too fast to allow consultation, instead saying: “Just do what I ask, I’ll take responsibility afterwards if the result does not turn out well.”
It was very rarely that it did — the 1960 trip to South Africa was to be his only series loss, a narrow one at that, and the All Blacks lost only five of his 30 Tests as captain. Laidlaw readily conceded that he “knew how to win matches”.
He also reckoned that the toughest decisions concerned how to defend a narrow lead. Meads admired him as a player, not least as a supreme dribbler when this was still a significant skill, defended his scrummaging and recalled: “As a captain he inspired fierce loyalty”.
Whineray may have seemed a distant figure to junior players, but was fully appreciative of his near-contemporary Meads, writing: “It was my privilege as a captain to have him at my shoulder — and in fact much of my humble reputation was earned by the sweat of his brow”.
Meads outlasted Whineray at top level by six years, bowing out as captain after the home defeat by the British & Irish Lions in 1971. The archetypal “unsmiling giant”, he often trod the margins in disciplinary terms, overstepping memorably at Murrayfield in 1967 when a wild lash of the boot earned him only the second sending-off in international rugby history.
Sir Colin Meads is knighted by Governor General of New Zealand Sir Anand Satyanand in 2009. Marty Melville/Getty Images
But his qualities vastly outweighed the minuses, earning a reputation which dwarfed even the remarkable statistics of his All Black career — 14 years, 133 matches and 57 Test caps. He was, Laidlaw wrote, a player with “no detectable weaknesses”, who was “an inspiration to play with”, not least because “the very fact of his presence generated visible apprehension in any opposition team”.
By the time Meads retired, Whineray was embarked on the second successful career which observers like McLean had predicted for him. He was Managing Director of the New Zealand Wool Marketing Board before he was 40, rose to chair Carter Holt — a major company — and as a sports administrator headed the Hillary Commission and the New Zealand Sports Foundation.
Knighted in 1998, he was seriously sounded out as Governor-General — New Zealand’s domestic head of state — in 2006, but asked not to be considered. Meads continued to farm and to work within rugby.
Agreeing to coach the 1986 Cavaliers rebel tour of apartheid-era was a setback for administrative ambitions, but he managed the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup and in 1999 was voted All Black Player of the Twentieth Century.
His own knighthood had to wait until 2009, when New Zealand restored the title. But his standing among his compatriots was apparent when the Lions visited in 2005 and press reports spoke straight-facedly of touring fans being ‘granted an audience with him’.
Whineray died in 2012, but Meads, while diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016, remains with us. News of the diagnosis led Prime Minister John Key to call him “the most iconic New Zealander I can think of”.
Few would argue with that, still fewer with the proposition that the All Black selectors did a decent job on that Saturday in Sydney, 60 years ago this week. To launch the Test career of either Meads or Whineray would have been something to boast about. To launch both…
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