Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: Front-row star back and ready for Aussies

Injuries hampered his Blues season, but hooker Keven Mealamu is now fit, fresh and eager to resume his All Black duties against the Wallabies tonight. Picture / Brett Phibbs
Injuries hampered his Blues season, but hooker Keven Mealamu is now fit, fresh and eager to resume his All Black duties against the Wallabies tonight. Picture / Brett Phibbs

More than a quarter of Keven Mealamu's remarkable test rugbycareer has been in combat against the Wallabies.

It has been remarkable in so many ways.

He is heading into his 94th test tonight in Sydney, making his first All Black start this year after his Super 15 schedule was interrupted by a series of calf muscle injuries.

Say that again. Yep 94 tests, at hooker, from a bloke who spent much of his teenage years playing as a loose forward.

Mealamu bats away most of the accolades with his five-star smile and million-dollar manners.

His Christian attitudes and downright politeness stand out in these modern times of drive-by conversations and abrupt meetings.

It seems incompatible with his disposition that he shoves his melon into frenzied front row combat - until you notice his ears, or what's left of them.

They have that chewed-over fleshy look of being rubbed again and again in the cauliflowered confrontation, unseen by match officials and unknown by any except those who have buried their bonces in that area.

From his loose forward days, Mealamu has squashed more kilos into his compact frame so it registers at least 108kg on the All Black scales.

He pulled on his first All Black jersey in 2002 and a year later was into his initial Bledisloe Cup game, marking up against Brendan Cannon as the All Blacks walloped the Wallabies in Sydney.

Many expected the same result, not the same margin, when the sides met again that year in the World Cup semifinal, but that was not to be.

"That's what the Bledisloe Cup is about, every one is different," Mealamu said.

"You hardly go through two or three matches where one team is going to be on top all the time.

"When you have lost the first or second one, it gives you extra motivation to come back and do better in the next.

"Every game has its own little identity."

Tonight will be Mealamu's 25th test against the Wallabies (only six defeats) as he continues a career which is likely to have him as the third man behind Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina to click over 100 tests in black.

All that experience, all that understanding and all the knowledge he has accumulated will help Mealamu resume his starting role.

He has been through a torturous Blues campaign, made even more painful by his inability to play more than seven games for the franchise because of injury.

"The way we finished was a positive," he said, "and being able to get out there and contribute was a plus for me, a way I could really help the team.

"Then when we sat down at the end to talk through ideas about how we could get better for next year, what we needed to do and then park that and move on to this next segment."

While there was just one rugby season, there were several segments in it and each had to be dealt with.

"If you are unable to park each one and then move on, there can be problems," Mealamu said.

The 33-year-old is fit now and very fresh. In horse terms he would be lightly raced.

He will need all his years of experience to cope with tonight, to let the occasion work for rather than against him.

"I have to be comfortable I am ready, I am fresh but I have to make sure I have the preparation right but not to overdo it.

"I have to trust what I have learned."

Mealamu and his deputy, Andrew Hore, discussed that topic in recent weeks and both agreed they were much more comfortable with their place in the side than they were five years ago.

The way the All Blacks prepared had helped. They knew how to build towards a test.

"No matter who it is, it gives you a better chance of success and I think we have really stepped that up over the last couple of years," said Mealamu.

- NZ Herald

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