Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Meads had a style all his own

Being an early convert to the Colin Meads, and he was only Colin then, style of speaking, it was a privilege to enjoy the opportunity to engage in two lengthy interviews with him in the last two years.

The first was for the book Tony Johnson and I wrote, Behind the Silver Fern, and the second was for the on-going and occasional series of video interviews for allblacks.com known as the Legends of the All Blacks.

The first was before the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that claimed his life and the second was the last interview he gave before his death. Yet the delivery in his speech from that first experience until his last never varied. He was consistency personified.

That first experience was in the Wool Saleyards building at Gore, in Eastern Southland in early-1968. He and his skipper Brian Lochore were in town to address, if memory serves correctly, an open meeting of the Gore Tin Hat Club. It was an ideal venue befitting the farming background of both men and the community in which they were speaking. They felt at ease with their audience.

They had not long returned from their 1967 tour of Britain and France, a highly-successful tour that changed All Blacks rugby for the better and which it was my privilege to enjoy as a young rugby fan growing up. The scrapbooks compiled during that tour remain in my possession.

A career in journalism, and more especially with a large part of it devoted to sports writing, meant coming into contact with both men on a professional level in the future. Lochore, more especially, because of his roles both as a coach and as chairman of the Hillary Commission at a time when being based in Wellington at The Evening Post.

There was a chat with Meads when he was touring the country promoting the first of the books of his life, written by Alex Veysey, but it wasn't until the two occasions more recently that our paths had crossed.

Two particular stories Meads described on that evening in Gore have stuck with me and seem to have avoided regular inclusion in his after-dinner repertoire.

The first involved an early tour stopover in the United States and some of the All Blacks and their coach Fred Allen, returning from an evening out only to find themselves caught in the middle of a shoot-out in the street. As Meads told the story, the players ducked for cover, or hit the ground, immediately.

When the shooting stopped they dusted themselves off and did a count to see all were present and intact, only to find their coach was unaccounted for. They looked around and found him holding open an ambulance door as the wounded were taken away. Ever the military veteran, Allen was in the middle of where the action was thickest.

The second story related to a rather ikey London hotel the team were staying in later on the tour. It was the custom wherever the All Blacks were staying for the Apple and Pear Marketing board to ensure a case of fresh New Zealand apples were available in a central position in the hotel for the players.

One night a few of the side decided they had enjoyed enough of the products in the apple box so they decided to play some cricket in the hallway with apples as cricket balls. As happens in these sorts of events there was some noise involved.

The following day at training, Allen took Meads aside and said to him a few of the younger chaps had got a little boisterous the night before and appeared to be playing cricket in the hallway. Would Colin mind making sure the young fellows in the side were put through their paces at training as some form of punishment?

Not a problem at all, Meads had replied, relieved that blame hadn't been apportioned to the guilty parties.

Memory also reminds that 'little French bugger Jean Gachassin' got a mention, as he did many times in the future while the Alain Plantefol incident in which the sickening blow that required 14 stitches to Meads' head in the French Test also got an airing.

And at the end of it all there was the chance to get the autographs pictured herewith from both men in the TP McLean book of their exploits in the 1966 series against the British & Irish Lions, The Lions Tamers, McLean's latest book of their 1967 tour All Blacks Magic not having been released.

Like many New Zealanders, probably far more than is appreciated, a young boy from Mataura had a lot to be thankful for in the demonstration of humility, good humour and story-telling charm that Messrs Meads and Lochore provided that night in Gore and on many other occasions subsequently.

They lit their game with a healthy lifetime of lustre and the example they have set will be forever as glorious as the feats they achieved on the fields of the world.

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