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Jim Kayes

Jim Kayes has been covering rugby since the late 1990s across print/online, radio and television with The Dominion Post, Stuff.co.nz, TV3 and Newshub, Radio Live and Radio Sport.  He's been to five World Cups, covered almost 200 All Blacks Tests and was on safari with the Lions when the British and Irish side last toured New Zealand, in 2005.

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Lions Memories: Colin Meads

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allblacks.com     04 Apr 2017     Getty Images

He was part of the All Blacks, but not picked to start, watching instead as the Lions scored four tries yet still lost 18-17. Don Clarke kicked the All Blacks to victory; with the Star Sports newspaper’s headline declaring the result was “Clarke 18, Lions 17”. Had that game been played with today’s scoring, the Lions would have won 25-18.

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“We were done in a lot of departments and they had a terrific backline,” Meads says as he looks back over a storied career in which the Lions were a significant part. Meads had to wait a month for the second Test when he would wear the No7 jersey in a match they won 11-8, the All Blacks this time crossing for three tries. From there he didn’t miss a Test against the Lions till he retired in 1972 having captained the All Blacks to a series defeat against them a year earlier. It wasn’t the way he wanted things to end, but Meads is ever the pragmatist.

“I had a car crash in December (1971) and cracked a few vertebrae. I didn’t return to rugby till May or June and was at the end of my tether a bit. One of All Blacks selectors told me I was guaranteed a trial, but there was no guarantee I’d get picked. I knew they were thinking I was a bit old and past it, so I called it quits.”

Quits aged 35 after 55 tests, 47 of those at lock, one at six, two at No8 and five at openside. Quits after 41 Test wins, four draws and 10 defeats. Quits after leading his country in 11 Tests, four of those, his final four, against the best that Britain and Ireland could muster.

The Lions hold a special place in Meads’ heart having played them so often and securing two series wins, including the four nil white-wash in 1966, a tour that also saw him help Wanganui-King Country to a 12-6 victory. “Collectively they didn’t play well as a team that tour. They were poorly led (by perhaps the most maligned Lions captain ever, Scotland’s Mike Campbell-Lamerton). He was too nice a guy and was out on a limb really. They were not a good side.”

Meads played in an era before World Cups and Rugby Championships, at a time when it was common for the All Blacks to play just a handful of Tests each year. Had he played today when the All Blacks routinely play 14 Tests a year, Meads might have played in excess of 200 Tests in his 15 year career. It beggars belief.

His 11 Tests against the Lions are surpassed only by the 15 he played against Australia and are one more than the 10 against his great foe, South Africa. Meads finds it hard to separate the Springboks from the Lions as his greatest rival in an era where Tests against both were rare, so were treasured. “Now we play South Africa regularly so the main attraction is the Lions. Back in the old days it was South Africa and the Lions.”

Warren Gatland will bring 37 players to New Zealand in late May for the 10 game series and Meads expects some surprises in the squad. “Everyone’s picking their team and we’ll all be wrong. It’s the blend of players Gatland brings that is the big thing.”

The Lions teams Meads faced had some fantastic backs. Men like Tony O’Reilly, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and JPR Williams to name just a few. He likes the looks of the Irish and Welsh backs from the just completed Six Nations and thinks they will be paired with a pack dominated by English forwards.

“The England team can’t be denied. There will be a big percentage of them in the side. They are huge - their forwards.”

And Meads will again be a keen spectator for a Test series he tips to be tight. This time, though, he won’t be in the stands. “I’m quite healthy at the moment but I’ve got diabetes as well as the cancer. And it’s a bit late at night for this old fella now.”