King Country represents the rural traditions that have become the backbone of grassroots rugby in this country. King Country plays in the Heartland Championship, a competition for New Zealand’s amateur and semi-professional provincial unions. One of the two trophies in the Heartland Championship is named after King Country’s legendary Colin (‘Pinetree’) Meads. No other player has better personified New Zealand rugby’s self-image. Along with Thames Valley, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Counties Manukau, King Country is part of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise.
The King Country Rugby Football Union was formed in 1922. An earlier attempt to form a Main Trunk Union involving a number of smaller sub-unions in the central North Island had failed to gain approval from the New Zealand Rugby Union. Over the next decade King Country grew by acquiring Kawhia, Otorohanga and Kaitieke. The Ruapehu sub-union centred on Ohakune returned to its original parent union of Wanganui in 1970, but in 1987 the Taupo sub-union joined King Country from Hawke’s Bay.
Like many rural unions, King Country has struggled in the professional era to attract and retain players. King Country was promoted to the NPC’s first division in 1992 and managed to cling on to top-flight status until it was relegated at the end of the 1996 season. King Country’s fortunes then went into decline, and by the early 2000s the team found itself in the third division.
King Country has failed in 18 attempts to win the Ranfurly Shield. A 19–16 loss to the all-conquering Hawke’s Bay side in 1969 remains King Country’s best effort in a shield challenge. They trailed 19–6 early in the second half before Meads inspired his team to fight back with two converted tries. He was everywhere, so much so that one of the touch judges is said to have asked the referee to count how many Bay players were on the field, because ‘I think Meads might have eaten one’.
In 1966 King Country combined with near neighbours Wanganui to defeat the British Lions 12–6 in one of the biggest triumphs for rugby in the region.
King Country rugby and Colin Meads are inseparable. Selected by New Zealand Rugby Monthly in 1999 as New Zealand’s Player of the Century, Meads remains one of the few players known to most simply by his nickname – Pinetree. He was given this name by three of his New Zealand under-23 teammates - Kevin Briscoe, Roger Boon and Ross Brown (all from Taranaki) on the 1958 tour of Japan. Raised on a farm in Te Kuiti, Meads exemplified the rugged, rural image of heartland rugby in this country. He was a backblocks farmer who – despite becoming the biggest name in New Zealand rugby and playing a then-record 55 tests – remained loyal to his small provincial union as a player, coach and administrator.
In the age of professional rugby Meads has been seen by the media and the public as a champion of the game’s old values. His strength was legendary. For most of Meads’ playing days substitutes were not allowed. During the 1970 tour of South Africa he broke his arm while playing against Eastern Transvaal but stayed on the field. At the end of the match Meads muttered, ‘At least we won the bloody game.’ Exploits like this made him a folk hero and seemed to sum up what we wanted our rugby heroes to be like. His rugged style did not endear him to all. In a match against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1967 Meads became only the second All Black to be ordered off in a test for dangerous play. And he ended the career of the Wallaby halfback Ken Catchpole by wrenching his leg while he was pinned in a ruck during the first test of the 1968 series.
Meads is undoubtedly the most famous of King Country’s eight All Blacks. But he was not the only Meads to wear the black jersey. Stan Meads played 30 times for the All Blacks between 1961 and 1966. Colin later noted in his best-seller Colin Meads, All Black, that ‘without being parochial, biased or unduly moved by brotherly love, I would say that Stan was the best [locking] partner of all the great ones I had.’
Other players of note to have worn the maroon and gold of King Country include Martin Johnson, the captain of the 2003 World Cup winners, England. Johnson played two seasons for King Country in 1989–90 and gained selection for the New Zealand under-21 side before returning home to England. Paul Mitchell (the brother of former All Black coach John Mitchell and son-in-law of Colin Meads) has played the most first-class games for King Country, 147. Hutana Coffin scored a record 917 points for the union between 1984 and 1995.
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