Colin Meads: 50 years on from All Black great's Scottish sending off

Meads in action for New Zealand against the Barbarians on their 1967 tour. S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Events at Murrayfield on Dec. 2, 1967 have already been brought to mind twice this year.

In July Sonny Bill Williams became the first All Black to be sent off in a Test match since that day. Not long afterwards came the death of Colin Meads, the player who had preceded Williams 50 years ago.

Rugby had much less of a media footprint then, but even so it is hard to overstate the impact of Meads' dismissal. The half-page it merited in the Times was the equivalent of a pull-out supplement nowadays. But this was because Meads was the most famous and experienced active rugby player in the world.

A Test player since 1957, he had a record 42 All Black caps and was closing in on becoming the first man ever, in an age when the majority of appearances were non-Test tour matches, to play 100 times in all for them.

But beyond that was the question of what he stood for. North and South divided over what was considered acceptable play. In broad terms, European rugby considered it legitimate -- and brave -- to kill the ball by lying on it. New Zealand in particular took the view that this was obstruction and that it was legitimate to ruck the man off the ball. Northern opinion usually saw this as dirty play, the central count in a more general indictment of the All Blacks for being over-physical.

This divide, and the extent to which Meads, a consummate hard man who cut a somewhat ogreish figure in European eyes, epitomised it, informed the reaction to what happened against Scotland at Murrayfield. As Cliff Morgan wrote, "I had the feeling that the decision was slightly swayed by the fact that a reputation for robust play had preceded Meads to this country."

The decision came three minutes from the end of the match that the All Blacks -- who had already beaten Wales, England and France but were unable to play Ireland because of the foot and mouth disease epidemic in Britain -- were leading 14-3. One reason why it came as a shock was that most of the crowd were unaware that Meads had already been warned, for precisely one of those 'trampling' offences, by referee Kevin Kelleher, meaning that a second serious offence must lead to a sending off.

But the second reason was that international players simply did not get sent off in those days. It was 42 years since the only previous case -- another All Black, Cyril Brownlie, at Twickenham in 1925. The records now recognise a third, Australia's Ted Greatorex against the All Blacks in 1923, but this was before Australia upgraded the New South Wales matches of the 1920s to Test status. Greatorex had died three years before, unaware that he would one day be regarded as the first man to be sent off in international rugby union.

"Playfair Rugby Football Annual" would argue that the decision "did a great service to the game by killing the myth that nobody would ever be sent off in top class rugby."

But as Playfair also acknowledged, there was a certain irony in the situation. The 1967 All Blacks had set out to dispel the grinding heritage of their immediate predecessors, under the management of Charles Saxton and Fred Allen playing a 15-man game which harked back to the hugely popular New Zealand Forces Kiwis team in which both had played in 1945-46. It had not been a dirty game, certainly much less rough than the previous week's contest between the All Blacks and France, during which French forward Alain Plantefol inflicted injuries which forced Meads to wear a bandage around his head at Murrayfield.

The sending-off came after Meads, chasing a loose ball, kicked out at it as Scotland outside-half Davie Chisholm tried to pick up. Meads recalled in 1974: "I thought I could get a foot to the ball before he got to it. I had to stretch to it and actually kicked the ball as he stooped to it. I kicked it into his body. Frank Laidlaw yelled 'Did you see that ref, the dirty bastard'.

"The ref arrived. To this day I am positive he did not see what had happened. I am just as sure it was the commotion Frank Laidlaw was making that made his mind up for him. He ordered me off. I was shocked, couldn't believe it. My mind sort of tumbled. I took a couple of paces away, stopped and half-turned back, thinking 'He can't mean it'."

All Black captain Brian Lochore, arriving late on the scene, attempted to dissuade Kelleher, with senior players Ken Gray and Chris Laidlaw joining. But as Meads knew: "He said 'you're off' and once they say that, you're gone."

Meads also recalled Chisholm later sympathising, saying he knew there was no intent to kick him. But Kelleher, one of the most experienced referees in Europe, was to say that "As I saw it, it was a matter of indifference to Meads whether he kicked the man or the ball" and to point out that the offence came on top of an earlier formal caution.

The New Zealand management team of Allen and Saxton were furious - Allen, according to one anecdote, to the point where he had to be dragged off a British journalist who said that Meads had had it coming - the more so when Meads received a two-match suspension which meant that he ended the tour just short of 100 All Black appearances.

British writers tended to feel that Kelleher had no option after the earlier caution, and to commend him for his courage in not ducking the issue. But not all opinion divided on national lines. Terry McLean, the most influential New Zealand journalist, was always uneasy about the darker side of Meads' game and described his actions at Murrayfield as "hair-raising." The Welshman Clem Thomas, recalling his own rumbustious exploits of a decade earlier, argued that "there, but for the grace of God, might have gone many of us."

Michael Melford in the Daily Telegraph wrote that "Some may think that he has been lucky to sail near the wind for so long and survive, but there is a stigma attached to being sent off which made the decision at this stage of an orderly match seem desperately harsh."

And it was certainly the stigma which concerned Meads as he walked off the field. "I had this terrible feeling of shame. 'That's the end', I thought, 'That's finished everything'."

Meads, like many All Blacks, was aware of the team's heritage. He knew about Brownlie, and the extent to which the sending-off had defined his career. He found it all too easy to imagine that 'Great All Black' would give way to 'Disgraced All Black' when he was written about.

But, as this year's obituaries show, it did not happen. The sending-off was there, as it should have been in any objective account of his life -- an oddity of the Wallabies website profile of Greatorex is that it does not mention his own sending-off -- but in most was overshadowed by the huge achievements of his career and his importance as a symbol not just of the All Blacks, but for the New Zealand of his times.

And there are good reasons for this. Being sent off defined Cyril Brownlie's career because, unlike brother Maurice, he was a fairly transient All Black -- playing only three Tests. Meads played 55, made 139 All Black appearances in all, and was around at top level for 14 years.

And unlike Brownlie, who died in 1954, Meads lived to see a time when sendings-off in Test matches are no longer once in a blue moon events. The eight foundation nations had between them fielded 1793 teams [the vast majority, of course, against other foundation unions] up to Dec. 2, 1967. If Greatorex is included, Meads was the third man to be sent off -- a rate of just over one every 600 matches. The Five Nations had played 1381 matches between them without ever having a man sent off.

Sonny Bill was the 41st player from the foundation eight to be sent off since Meads. They include 11 Frenchmen, eight South Africans and seven Welshmen. Those countries fielded 3286 teams across that time, so 41 red cards represent an average just below once in every 80 matches. That rate fell to just above one in every 90, 11 men from 986 teams, in the decade up to Sonny Bill's red card on July 1 this year.

Outliers to 1967, by virtue of having any sendings-off at all, the All Blacks continued to be exceptional for the next 49 and a half years. Their achievement in not having a single player sent off in 420 matches was tribute either to remarkable self-discipline or, some have argued, an undue ability to influence referees. That Tier 2 players are likelier to be red-carded similarly reflects, according to taste, either lower standards or a greater willingness of referees to apply sanctions to less famous players and teams. A combination of the two arguably applies in both cases.

So the sending-off remains an unusual event, but no longer one which carries the stigma of the utterly exceptional. The list of those dismissed includes some noted hard men and one or two who may, because of the circumstances or simply because it was the one notable event of a short Test career, come to be defined by it.

But Sonny Bill's career across a range of sports has surely already been too exceptional for it to be defined by a bad tackle in a Lions Test. And is anybody really going to argue that such fine players, and otherwise exemplary citizens, as Sam Warburton, Elliot Daly, Scott Murray or Alessandro Troncon will be defined by a single red card? It seems as unlikely for them as it now, self-evidently, was for Meads.