Sheek’s excellent recent article on Richie McCaw certainly generated plenty of support for McCaw as the greatest player rugby has seen, and the events of Suncorp last Saturday night only reinforce those views.
In what was a misfiring All Blacks’ performance McCaw stood out for two moments in particular: singlehandedly shutting down a dangerous kick though he was well outnumbered, then showing inspiring leadership to risk a loss in order to try to convert a draw into an unlikely (and probably undeserved) win.
But for McCaw to assume the “greatest ever” mantle he would need to oust the incumbent who, according to most observers, is the great All Black: lock forward Colin Meads.
Such comparisons across eras are always difficult, even moreso when one of the contenders is still playing and may have another three seasons left at the top level. So while McCaw is very much in the public eye, allow me to shift some of the focus back onto Meads.
Statistically Meads’ All Black record looks nothing like McCaw’s, 55 tests from 133 matches for the All Blacks, but this is purely reflective of different structures applying to different generations.
A typical Meads winter saw him attend club training on Tuesday and Thursday nights, turn out Saturday for his club Waitete, a handful of sub-union games for Maniopoto, 10-12 provincial games for King Country, plus higher honours matches such as All Black trials, North v South etc, and then of course All Blacks home tests, and tours in the off season.
Tours of the long form variety, with matches in all corners against all comers – not the FIFO test only visits that we see today.
All the while running a sizeable sheep farm, bringing up 5 kids and driving many miles to attend trainings and matches across the remote King Country and beyond. Without a personal manager or media manager in sight, and not a cent to show for it.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the area and doubly lucky to have been a young fella standing on the sideline watching the great man at work.
Most vivid is a game on the Taumarunui Domain (on the number two ground no less, sometimes even the greatest are not deemed worthy of the number one pitch) between Waitete and Taumarunui Athletic where, one Saturday afternoon, the ridiculously strong Waitete pack was laying their usual waste.
In what was a well rehearsed routine, brothers Stan and Bill Symonds (another fine player) distracted the referee at a lineout, whose look away to sort the issue was Colin’s cue to clean out his opposing lock with a single clean punch. No TV of course, and in the days when touch was run by a reserve player or team manager using a spare pair of shorts as a flag, naturally done on the side of the field where their own man was on the line.
I don’t recall who it was he clocked but I did hear a few weeks ago that he’d just woken up asking if Neil Armstrong got back safely from the moon and what was the deal with this new decimal currency.
The Waitete pack lorded over the King Country just like the T-Birds ruled Rydell High. With a combination of skill and intimidation, over players and referees alike. I did once see a referee brave enough to send Meads off, late in his career, in a club match in the modest rugby outpost of Pio Pio, the small home crowd raucously cheering his every step back to the showers.
Meads’ most famous send off occurred in a test match against Scotland in 1967, ironic in that by almost all accounts, this incident was considered accidental or at worst careless. For Meads to complain, however, would be rather like John Holmes considering himself unlucky to contract Aids, and to his credit Meads copped what was a major humiliation on the chin without bitterness.
Of course many Australian views of Meads are clouded by the injury to Ken Catchpole and I make no attempt to gloss over this. It is well documented and, years later, does not sit well against the Meads persona, or the actions of a man who has given his life to rugby administration, countless private and public charitable acts, and continues to engage rugby supporters all around the world as an ambassador of the game.
Despite being capable of thuggish acts, anyone who has met the man knows that he is no thug. These were different times than today in terms of what was acceptable both on the field and in society.
Other anecdotes? The reverence in which Meads is held in New Zealand was highlighted to me on tour in the 80’s when billeted with son Glynn, a talented number eight good enough himself to be selected for an All Blacks Trial match.
While our teammates were all housed close to whatever action there was in Gisborne, we were driven to an impressive country manor, where numerous neighbours and relatives attended after dinner for an audience with the son of a legend.
Like a scene straight out of a Jane Austen costume drama, we retired to the drawing room, listened intently to a piano recital from one of the children, applauded politely, where thereafter, one by one, all were introduced to the guest of honour. Glynn never batted an eyelid, it came with the territory.
New Zealanders feel attached to Meads via his nickname “Pinetree”. For Te Kuiti locals, however, he was and is always simply “Tree,” this being their way of claiming territorial ownership over their man, and his way of just being another local bloke.
Another of Meads’ old King Country teammates was Maori All Black prop Bill Wordley, whose youngest son had gone off the rails a little, got in with the wrong crowd, and earned himself the rather dubious nickname “Scab.” He had just returned from a stint in Borstal when we were at an aftermatch function in the mid 80’s.
I happened to find myself alongside Meads at the urinal. “Gidday young Allanthus,” said the great man, not to distinguish me as young so much as to differentiate me from my old man.
“Gidday Colin” was about the best I can remember offering up in reply.
At which point young Wordley walked in to join us. He acknowledged me then turned to Meads and flicked an eyebrow in that cool way that only a real bro can do.
“Gidday Tree,” he said.
“Gidday Scab,” said Meads, zipping up his fly.
No irony, no trying to be funny, just one of the locals fitting in.
Above all else though, what ranks Meads so highly was his ability on the field. Never the tallest lock, he was blessed with massive hands, speed of foot and seemingly natural strength which was enhanced by farmwork.
He had tremendous presence on the field, stunning athleticism, and loved to carry the ball in one hand, throwing outrageous circular dummies, and flicking out offloads. The sort of stuff that adds zeroes to SBW’s contract every time he does it, Meads was doing routinely 40-50 years earlier.
There is no question in my mind that he would similarly dominate in today’s professional environment, although to be fair, with general improvement in player fitness and conditioning, the gap to the mortals may have been narrowed.
I don’t know Meads’ private view of McCaw nor McCaw’s of Meads, but I have no doubt that there is a shared humility, and agreement that all this discussion about who really is the greatest ever is not a matter for them.
Regardless of when and if Richie McCaw assumes the mantle, perhaps the greatest satisfaction that McCaw can take from this is that to even be considered in the same breath as Meads is testament enough to his outstanding career.