Rugby has lost one of its greatest stars

12:00 PM BST

It is always sad when you lose an old friend but news of the death of Sir Colin Meads strikes an even deeper chord for players of my generation.

New Zealand has produced many fine rugby players but he stood out as one of the defining figures in the history of the All Blacks and was awarded the ultimate accolade when he was named ‘Player of the 20th Century’ by the New Zealand Rugby Union [NZRU] in 1999.

He really was extra special and his story epitomised all that was good about New Zealand rugby. A country boy, like most of his teammates, he, his father and brother Stan (also an All Black) created the family farm by clearing the native bush just outside Te Kuiti, a small town in the middle of North Island.

He played international rugby in three decades starting in 1957 when he was just 20 and finishing in 1971 when he captained the All Blacks against the Lions. Fifty-five Tests is commonplace these days but it was a world record at the time, an extraordinary achievement when there were only two or three internationals in some seasons — right up there with Ritchie McCaw (148) and Brian O’Driscoll (141).

There was a reunion of the 1967 All Blacks before the first Test against the Lions in June. He was too ill to attend but everybody raised a glass to Pinetree — nobody could recall how the nickname came about but all agreed it was perfect. Later generations who played under him as a manager might have abbreviated that to a respectful Tree but to his teammates he was more often just Piney.

I last spoke to him in June, the day after they had unveiled a bronze statue of him in Te Kuiti main street — they renamed the town “Meadsville” for the event. He knew then that his illness was terminal and, typically, was angry that he could not do any more to fight it but, always defiant, he was determined to enjoy his last days with his family.

As a player he was an old school enforcer. Rugby was a battle that you had to win by hook or by crook and if the latter was sometimes necessary he would never shy away from it. As a result he became only the second All Black ever to be sent off against Scotland in 1967 — Sonny Bill Williams was the third.

Colin Meads, centre, is tackled by England’s Keith Savage. S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

When Wales toured New Zealand in 1969 he punched Jeff Young and broke his jaw but as Jeff admitted, he probably deserved it. When he returned from hospital he explained to us that he had been blocking and barging Meads at every opportunity in the lineout and was duly given good warning that there would be trouble if he continued in the same vein. “What did you say?” we asked. “I said f— off,” said Jeff ruefully through his wired-up jaw. “The trouble was I didn’t say it very loudly.”

That and a couple of other unsavoury incidents led to certain people branding him as nothing more than a thug, which is a complete misjudgement — if you played fair with him he would play fair with you but cross the line and you were in trouble. If the referee did not penalise you — there was only one, no assistants and no TMO to help out so most misdemeanours went undetected — Meads would dish out his own rough justice.

He was certainly no angel but he was a product of his time and when the match was over so was all the hostility. At the end of the fourth Test in 1971 when we, the Lions, had wrapped up the Test series he was the first man to come into our dressing room and have a beer with us.

I played against him probably 10 times in all but got to know him much better after our playing days were over. In 1987 I was making a film about why the All Blacks would win the inaugural Rugby World Cup and made a visit to the Meads’ farm — where he and brother Stan trained by running up the track with a sheep under each arm was compulsory.

Te Kuiti turned into Meadsville on Monday as a statue to honour great All Black Sir Colin Meads was unveiled. Tom Hamilton/ESPN

It was a controversial time. He had managed the rebel Cavaliers touring team to South Africa in 1986 and was serving a ban by the NZRU. Knowing my opposition to links with South Africa he insisted on talking at length to explain his motives. I left having discovered a Colin Meads who was a much deeper thinker than I had ever suspected.

Over the next few years we saw a great deal of each other. “You may be a press man now,” he would say. “But to me you’re a rugby mate, still that scrawny little Welsh flanker who was a bloody nuisance whenever we played — don’t you ever come down here without taking a day off to spend with your old friends.”

He was indestructible on the field and in the pantheon of international rugby players Sir Colin Meads has a room on the very top floor. Rugby has lost a truly great man.

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