My childhood encounter with Colin Meads

by Bill Ralston / 28 August, 2017
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Colin Meads on the charge in 1970 against South Africa in the fourth test at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, won by the Springboks 20-17.

We have precious few heroes in our lives. For Bill Ralston, Colin Meads was one.

Coming from an ardent rugby family, I almost died with excitement when as a child I spotted the All Blacks team, before a test, munching ice creams and sipping Coke in the lobby of Auckland’s Cinerama Theatre at half-time for, as I recall, the movie epic How the West Was Won. Those were simpler times.

Clutching my programme for the film – yes, in those days the theatre printed promotional brochures for major movies – and a pen, my nine- or 10-year-old self timidly walked up and asked Colin Meads’ kneecap if he would give me an autograph. He really did look like a pine tree as he bent in half, smiled, took the programme, signed it and then passed it around the whole team.

That cemented his reputation with me as the greatest man on the planet. My mother obviously agreed. When she died, I found the signed programme in one of the drawers in her room, carefully folded and nestling among other prized mementoes of her life.

Like most heroes, he didn’t always do what you or I might think was right. In 1986, he coached the rebel Cavaliers rugby tour of South Africa. Playing the Springboks just five years after the near civil war that resulted from the 1981 tour of New Zealand was a challenging move.

I was sent as TVNZ’s correspondent to cover both the tour and the unrest in apartheid-era South Africa. Disliking my being a political journalist, the Cavaliers blacklisted me and sent me to Coventry by refusing to discuss anything. My rugby credentials of having once captained the Northcote College First XV in 1971 were sadly insufficient.

Instead, I concentrated on covering the protests and killings going on at that time, carefully cutting the political elements into stories that also contained match coverage, thus driving my TVNZ sports editor, Tony Ciprian, quietly mad as he tried to unravel the rugby from the bitter bloodshed in the townships.

As with the 81 tour, that TV coverage was a source of fierce argument and division in New Zealand. Questions were asked in Parliament, and some of those Cavaliers and ex-All Blacks seem to still bear me some enmity today.

Yet years after 1986, at a sports dinner, I sat between Colin and his lovely wife, Verna, and we discussed the Cavaliers with no ill-will on either side. He was, off-field at least, a gentle giant.

This is an excerpt from a column that was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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