Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: It's all about the family

Keven Mealamu has always had the support of his parents, Luka and Tise, and they will be watching as he takes the field in Brisbane for test number 100 in the All Black jersey. Photo / Natalie Slade
Keven Mealamu has always had the support of his parents, Luka and Tise, and they will be watching as he takes the field in Brisbane for test number 100 in the All Black jersey. Photo / Natalie Slade

Keven Mealamu joins an exclusive club ... and counts his blessings

Sunday gatherings are always special at the Mealamu household in suburban Auckland.

It is an extended family time to savour church and friendship, to cherish experiences and laughter.

Generations meet at Luka and Tise's welcoming house where equality is the byword and respect is a pillar of the lifestyle.

Tomorrow there will be an extra bit of attention paid to one guest, when Keven Filipo Mealamu arrives, as the third and newest member of the All Blacks 100 test club.

Nothing ostentatious or over the top because that is not how the Mealamu family works.

The hooker's father and other relations have travelled to Suncorp Stadium for the special occasion, while his mother and friends will watch the action on television.

Mealamu will join captain Richie McCaw and fullback Mils Muliaina in the exclusive club.

Not bad for a bloke who changed from a flanker in his late years at Aorere College to hooker and battled to get traction at the start of his Super rugby career.

A shift to the Chiefs produced an elevation to the All Blacks end-of-year tour to Europe in 2002 and the start of his test career, against Wales.

"I remember being on the bench for the first test on that trip against England and it just felt like being a spectator," he giggled.

"I was jumping up and down in excitement without thinking at some stage I might be needed."

Mealamu debuted a few weeks later, then was picked for the 2003 World Cup squad.

"That was all amazing and you go from wanting to be an All Black to having a few games then thinking I can be really good at what I do here.

"It clicked that I love this enough to do it for a long time and I wanted to be darned good at it."

A decade on, Mealamu has done that, but start to praise him and he deflects the talk to players like Michael Jones and Richie McCaw.

No loose forward was like Jones, he was a different shape to anyone else, quicker than anyone and got to places no one else could.

But no one had a bigger ticker than McCaw.

"I have never seen a guy who week-in, week-out turns up with performances up here," Mealamu motioned to the ceiling.

"He does it all the time, his graph is enormous. When you think about greatness, that's what it is."

Mealamu and his family - he is one of five children - grew up in Tokoroa, the tough timber-milling town in south Waikato.

In class one day, a teacher asked the young Samoan what he wanted to do and the reply was to play for the All Blacks.

"After I saw Michael Jones score at the World Cup, honestly, I thought 'man that's great' and I practised that dive for the line all the time.

"My brother and I smashed a few windows at the back of the house when we were trying to be like Grant Fox too. We had the shake of the hand and all the mannerisms.

"I also remember JK (Kirwan) which is funny because he is our coach now at the Blues. He made all those runs and then shattered the corner flag in the final."

Mealamu has now played more than 300 first-class rugby games, a third of them in the black jersey.

"We changed a lot of things when Graham Henry came in. We became more than a team, we wanted to do some special things together.

"It changed for me from being in a team I played for and spent some time with, to wanting to be with them all the time and being a team of special calibre."

But there are also wife Latai, son Samuel and daughter Maia, and he worries about being away from them for too long.

He wants to spend more time with them, but does not see a rugby retirement any time soon. Mealamu is young, at 33, compared to Richard Loe and Frank Bunce who played on into their mid and late thirties.

"A decade on I just love it. You pick up so many things, and now I understand how to do most things or rectify problems."

Battles were tough, against men like Matt Sexton, Mark Hammett and Anton Oliver when he started, Andrew Hore, Brendan Cannon and John Smit in his later years.

"It is always the front row as a unit which has to stand up though."

Someone like England's Andy Sheridan was a fascinating prop, but he never dominated the All Blacks.

Lineouts were always a searching area of the game but Mealamu had learned to practise until it was right.

"The more you train, the more belief you have. What I get to do is pretty special. I get to do rugby where other people have to get up early and go to work and come back late in the evening. Rugby is just so enjoyable - and it looks after my family and me. I love it."


Keven Mealamu
Age 33
1.81m, 110kg
Test debut 2002 v Wales
All Blacks 99 caps
Blues 132
Chiefs 11
Auckland 68

- NZ Herald

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