TE KUITI, New Zealand — The signs started popping up about three kilometres outside Te Kuiti. ‘Sir Colin Meads is in town…now! Take a break’, read the first. Then came the more succinct ‘Welcome to Meadsville’.
Rora Street, which runs through the heart of Te Kuiti — a small town an hour’s drive south of Hamilton in the heart of King Country — was shut. The high street was a hubbub of activity; police stood at the top of the street, camera crews were taking their positions, chairs were laid out for rugby royalty and a looming object stood covered by a black tarpaulin.
Attached to each shop on the road were temporary wooden placards replacing the painted or metal-plated signs for the shops or businesses, each referring to their most famous resident. ‘Pie-ne Trees Place’, ‘Meadsville Scourers’, ‘Eyes on Meadsville’, ‘Meads Peas in a pod’, ‘Mead-acine’ were just some of the temporary signs. Even the toilets had one: ‘Meadsville comfort stop’.
This was a festival, a celebration of arguably the greatest All Black of the lot, Sir Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads, as the town and his old teammates prepared to unveil the 2.4m statue of the man voted New Zealand’s player of the century.
Photographs of Sir Colin from his playing days were in the shop windows, with the silver fern standing stark against the black jersey and in the town’s i-Site was the most remarkable of tributes to Sir Colin and his brother Stan.
The museum had been lovingly assembled by Sir Colin’s daughter-in-law Jo, who is married to his son Glynn. It painted the picture of a man who is a husband, father, son, farmer, humanitarian, ambassador and rugby immortal.
The story of his rugby life was captured across the walls; rugby shirts and blazers from both Stan and Sir Colin’s careers sat behind glass, each showing a history of wear — the blazers were lucky to survive as Sir Colin’s wife Verna used to cut the badges off some of them and donate them to the local charity shop.
British & Irish Lions captain Willie John McBride’s jersey was also there, but the newspaper clippings on the wall painted a remarkable portrait of his playing days, while giving insight into his other life as a farmer.
One section was dominated by reaction to the broken arm he suffered while playing Eastern Transvaal back in 1970. A headline screamed ‘Meads breaks arm but plays on’, with another following ‘Doctors tell Meads: Rip off plaster and play’.
Then there was an exhibit focusing on farming, with one introduction painting a delightful picture of the man: “Colin Meads, in dungarees and a tartan shirt, excused himself as we shook hands in the kitchen of his King-Country farm-house. He explained that he had been crutching sheep in the wool-shed — his hands were not as clean as he would like.”
The two halves of his life came together in one small item in the corner of the room. His All Blacks kitbag was sat by the shirts, but Jo told us how they had to ferociously scrub it to make it presentable as it had doubled up on the farm as a place to store equipment needed for lamb docking.
What was most touching, though, were the accounts of his charity work and the family aspect to the exhibition. There were letters from his children to him when he was overseas touring with the All Blacks, one dated from Jan. 12, 1968, telling him: “I am knitting a doll’s cardigan” and “Mummy washed her hair today”. Then there was a poster listing New Zealand’s 1963 tour fixtures, with results filled out by Verna and ‘Colin’ written next to the games he played in. It was all deeply touching.
As the crowd assembled outside, and some of the greats of New Zealand rugby took their seats, there was suddenly spontaneous applause as ‘Pinetree’ arrived alongside Verna.
They moved slowly to the front by the statue, the eyes of the crowd following their every move in awe, respect and affection. He sat next to his brother, Stan. “It’s great to see the two blokes locking again,” said Keith Quinn, the legendary New Zealand commentator.
The extended Meads family were there; he has five children and 14 grandchildren. Tributes were paid to the great man. Maurice Trapp, the NZR president, said he represents the “true values of New Zealand rugby and New Zealand — strength, passion and competitiveness”. He followed up by wondering whether sculptor Natalia Stamilla had been able to “build a heart bigger than the man”.
Sir Brian Lochore, his teammate and friend, paid tribute to Pinetree, by saying “What he has done for Te Kuiti is amazing, but what he has done for New Zealand is unsurpassable”. He followed it up with an anecdote about how on one trip to France, he and Sir Colin were befuddled by the bidet in their bathroom, and thought it was a foot wash.
John Spencer, 1971 Lion and current tour manager, passed on tributes from Gareth Edwards, John Dawes, Barry John, Willie John McBride, JPR Williams and Bill Beaumont while hailing him as a “legend” and “warrior”. All the while Sid Going, Bryan Williams, Earle Kirton, Tane Norton and Bill Bush sat, applauded and reminisced.
And then it was Pinetree’s turn. With the help of his brother Stan, who described his older sibling as a “bloody good bugger”, they hauled the cover off the statue and after photographs were taken, it was Sir Colin’s turn.
There were doubts just a day before if he would be fit enough to attend, as he continues to battle cancer. But as he spoke, quietly, the whole crowd hung with his every word. “I’m sorry I’m not as fit as I used to be,” he opened with.
When the statue was originally suggested, he had his doubts. He is a humble giant, the limelight was thrust upon him rather than asked for, but he was taken aback by the adulation and fondness from those around him. “There’s nothing much one can say on an occasion like this”, he said. But he was fond of his mirror image in bronze form. “Well, it’s amazing how much detail she’s gone into to get it because, I was just saying, even me bootlaces are done up how I used to lace them up too.”
We had already heard how he usually turned down champagne for beer, but his intake has curbed with the illness. “I won’t be able to have many beers afterwards, but I’ll try to have a few.”
His body may be a little weaker than it used to be, but the aura remains. It was a day where the beating heart of New Zealand rugby moved to the small town of Te Kuiti to acknowledge and pay tribute to their greatest warrior.
Husband, father, son, rugby player, farmer, captain or idol, he is the man who has given so much to New Zealand. He will now forever stand, a giant of man, on the high street of the place they call Meadsville.