Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
20 August 2017
The small New Zealand town of Te Kuiti, in the aptly-named King Country turned out in June 2017 for what was to be the last public outing for the districts legendary rugby star, the great Sir Colin Meads. I was honoured to be MC for the day and later wrote this story for 'NZTODAY.'
It was very much a Meadsville event at the June unveiling of the ‘Sir Colin Meads Statue’ in Te Kuiti’s Rora Street and the Tribute dinner which followed.
In the end I actually doubt that Te Kuiti has had a more beautiful day.
For a while though there was reason for considerable anxiety that the 81-year old, dubbed ‘New Zealand’s Rugby Player of the Century’ in 2000, would make it to the event to honour him. Colin is very unwell, his cancer of the pancreas is well documented, indeed, he has talked about it in public quite often. Its evil tentacles are grabbing at him more each day as I write this.
But I am so glad that before he dies Colin was able to see how much he is truly loved and admired.
As someone who was born in ‘TK’ (so long ago I can remember the young Queen Elizabeth driving slowly through town in an open car back in 1954) I know the main street of Te Kuiti is very rarely closed off. These days it is done only for an annual event where sheep are driven down it and the locals cheer and smile. It’s a reminder to all, of the farming and rural roots of the area.
But the ropes were in place again on this day to control cars and crowds for the first public showing of Aucklander Natalie Stamilla’s brilliant statue of the running, ball carrying 1957-71 All Black Sir Colin Earl Meads.
Not that Colin took advantage of the barriers on the road. To cope with a perceived lack of mobility on his part local officials had kindly made a special place for his car to pass through to allow he and his wife Verna to be driven right up to a special place near the entrance of the new Gallagher Meads Brothers Exhibition. But Colin would have none of that. He parked 50 metres down the road behind the barriers and walked along the footpath as everyone else had to do on the day. That is Colin, a humble local, not wanting to cause a fuss.
I was MC at the unveiling and for the opening of the Meads Brothers Exhibition which is in the Railway Plaza right behind the statue.
There were hold-ups as we waited for the small afternoon ceremony to start. A rumour had gone through that Colin was too unwell to come down into town from his home. Then he was on his way, and then he wasn’t. This happened several times. Finally word was whispered that he was with us though not yet ready to face the assembled crowd of 4000, not to mention the 60 or 70 world media, many peeled off from the British and Irish tour.
Poor Colin must have been in agony. A bathroom pause was needed for him.
Then he emerged to a triumphant cheer and applause. I always tell the story I heard years ago that when Bay of Plenty’s rugby team scored a late try to take the lead against the 1959 Lions locals all over Rotorua could hear the massive cheering.
It would have been the same in Te Kuiti on ‘Meads Day 2017.’
Verna and Colin took their place in the front row of the official seating. Younger brother Stan Meads and his wife Beryl were next along in the seating order. As the two brothers took their places shoulder to shoulder it crossed my rugby-besotted mind that the great All Black locking pair (Pinetree and Snow as they call each other) were together again.
It was a warm Te Kuiti afternoon. I watched Colin closely as the Te Kuiti Mayor; Brian Hanna opened proceedings with a welcome, followed by the President of the New Zealand Rugby Union, Maurice Trapp and then the great friend of the Meads’s Sir Brian Lochore. Colin listened carefully and wistfully, smiling at numerous the friendly quips. He then rose to reply.
I hope you will understand this next bit as I saw it. On the day I made the introduction for Sir Colin to come to the podium. Then I stood back to watch and listen. It was as if in slow motion that the great man carefully stepped up to the barrage of microphones. The whirring of cameras came over the top of his not so strong delivery. To me the scene was like a powerful but aging world figure facing a crowded press conference to tell them of a new twist in a global story. We hung on Colin’s every word.
He spoke for about seven minutes. It was mostly heart-felt thank yous from he ‘and Verna’ to various people involved with ‘the day.’ As he spoke he inadvertently invited his brother to speak next. That had not been on the order of the day which I had and Stan looked over quizzically. I looked at my clipboard and gave him a shrug.
But no worries mate. When the time came the upright and tall Stan took to the podium. The two of them were great. They covered off everything so well. Stan is a man who was always happy to have been in the background of the two men’s rugby fame. But on this day he was a perfect fit. ‘My brother has always been a good bugger,’ he said to the crowd as he ended. To me Stan’s was the perfect King Country summary.
The unveiling of the statue of Colin followed. Yes, there was a moment of levity when the two brothers, both tough farmers in their day, tugged gently at the covering rope and found difficulty in pulling it off. But then it fell away to another cheer. Suddenly there for us all to see was the giant Colin cast in bronze.
At his peak Colin stood about 1.94 metres tall (maybe 6 feet 4 inches). I love Natalie Stamilla’s exaggerated depiction of him. The 2.9 metre statue perfectly captures, in its stylised way, Colin’s domination of rugby’s forward play in his time. He is portrayed large and in charge, taking a giant stride, running with the ball in one hand. That is the way I remember him playing, always rushing fearlessly towards whoever the opposition was. The ball in one hand was totally unique to him in his time.
The statue is in Te Kuiti now for all time, right in front of the Meads Brothers Exhibition. Inside there are four large rooms of Meads memorabilia, from both brother’s rugby careers. The whole place is a haven and genuine tribute of gratitude from a small town to two men who took their sporting prowess to the world, but always came home. The two have made Te Kuiti, their home town truly Meadsville, a fact which is honoured by signs around the streets which say just that.
I was so captivated by the whole day can I also tell you of the sit down dinner which followed? It was candle-lit and began at 4pm! The early start for dinner was again thinking about possible sensitivities to Colin’s precarious health. Everyone hoped he would be able to be there. Everything on this beautiful Kiwi day had been taken into consideration by the hard-working committee led by Jo Meads (the wife of younger son Glynn Meads), Yvette Ronaldson (of the promotional office Legendary Te Kuiti) and Shelley Mitchell (the youngest of Colin and Verna’s five children).
And get this nice touch; on each of the tables three or four small candles were set in a crosscut slice of a pine tree trunk (reference to Colin’s nickname of course) and there were pine tree saplings in boxes around the speaker’s dais on stage. Woolsacks and cream cans were also around the stage also reminded us of a farm setting.
My favourite speaker on the night was Shelley Mitchell (nee Meads). As the youngest of the five kids by nine years she proudly spoke of the special time she had had on her own with her mother and father on the farm while the others were at school in town. Shelley had worked it out that her father had been retired from playing rugby by about ten years but yet his competitive fires had never gone out. She recalled that when it came to the two of them running home for lunch from a back paddock on the farm, ‘Dad! You never let me win!’ she exclaimed to the crowd.
Another great story was ‘released’ by Shelley to the 400 people present. ‘When I was recently up at Mum and Dad’s house,’ she said, ‘I was searching through a box of clippings, rugby programmes and other possible stuff for use in the exhibition. I came across a notebook which was a training diary for the 1967 All Blacks world tour. On each page Dad had written things like the detailed times he had woken up each day, then of the breakfast, lunch and dinners he’d had, how training had gone and who he’d met etc. That was all good stuff but I hurried through the page for December 2, 1967, to see what he had noted for that particular day. That was the day he had been sent off by the Irish referee Kevin Kelleher, in the game against Scotland in Edinburgh. But dear old Dad, all he had written on that page were just four words – “sent off, got drunk!”’
And then it was time again for Colin to speak. Family members were getting really concerned by the late afternoon hour but Colin gamely made it to the forefront again. This time he leaned into the podium on stage and away he went for at least 15 more minutes. It was all laughs from droll Meads humour. The kind of material which has made him in demand as a speaker for decades. The place was uplifted hearing some of his best one more time. He ended with a story many of us had heard before, the Pinetree classic yarn which has made rugby clubhouses rock with laughter down the years. It was the one about how he’d punched fast-rising tough guy Keith Murdoch in an All Black trial game and, not having done any damage with the blow, then had to make damned sure he kept his distance from any retaliation he knew the young bull would be trying to inflict in return. I looked across at Glynn and big Kelly (the elder Meads son) and they, who must have heard the story a hundred times, had the widest of smiles on their faces.
Colin stepped down at last to about his third standing ovation of the day and after kissing and smooching the youngest of his great-great grand-children who were present, he walked minutes later, unaided, but with his sons close by in case they were needed to help his passage, down the side of the hall, through the double doors and was gone.
I shed a tear then, not afraid to say so. And so did a lot of others present. We will not see his like again.
We worked out that from the time he had left home for the unveiling through to leaving the hall he had been away from his bed, his rest (and the bathroom) for about seven hours. A legend to the end I say.
And three new All Black caps; Connor, Wolfe and McKay conjure up a try in the very first minute in the first test at Auckland!
If there has been a problem for Aborigines in Australian rugby history, it mirrors attitudes by the Australian public in general. There was an early typecasting of the race as non-achievers in life as in sport. But in rugby the Aborigines have produced a number of champion players.
The most famous were the Ella brothers, Mark, Glen and Gary, who showed the world a brilliantly instinctive degree of understanding of each other on the field of play. Their fame was worldwide in rugby. All were test players around the same time, though they never all played in the same test match.
Mark Ella was one of the First Fifteen of players inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in London in 1997. He is remembered as one of the glittering stars of Australian rugby. The other two from the family, Glen and Gary, were thrilling backline runners too, and all later became much respected coaches.
It is thought that the first Aborigine player to be capped for Australia was Jack ‘Blondie’ Howard in 1938. His teammates at the time were not all sure of his racial background and Howard apparently was never keen on discussing it. Alongside Howard in the tests of 1938 was Cecil Ramalli,who was part-Indian and part-Aborigine. It is said that Ramali, too, never revealed his Aboriginality. He preferred to be known as part-Indian.
Eventually Aborigine players emerged who were happy to declare their race. Lloyd McDermott of Queensland was a pacy winger who played tests against the All Blacks in 1962.
In the years after the Ella brothers came Lloyd Walker, Barry Lea, Andrew Walker and Jim Williams, all of whom were Wallabies. After originally being a centre, Williams was the first forward of Aborigine descent to play test football.
Who was known as 'The Olympic All Black" - and why?