By CHRIS RATTUE
Barefoot and brilliant. That was how Keven Mealamu made his entrance into Auckland rugby.
His family had just arrived from Tokoroa, his father having been made redundant from the town's paper mill, and Mealamu had enrolled in the fourth form at Aorere College in Papatoetoe.
On this particular day he was supposed to be watching his older brother Luke - who went on to play for Samoa - in a first XV trial.
Auckland rugby's high-performance manager Geoff Moon, in those days the school's PE teacher and rugby coach, was refereeing.
"He had turned up in bare feet ... We didn't even let fourth-formers trial, but he hopped on the field," says Moon, who later instigated Mealamu's switch from loose forward to hooker, and coached him in Otahuhu's last Gallaher Shield-winning side.
"He destroyed everyone on the field, and the teachers who were watching thought, 'What the hell have we got here.'
"The first time he went into contact, everyone took about five steps backwards ... he was strong and powerful, like he is now, technically correct, very fit, just a genuine true rugby player."
In his final school year, Aorere College took on the might of Kelston Boys High, where they were greeted with a mass school haka. Mealamu led his side on to the field then turned at halfway to see his comrades frozen behind the dead-ball line, intimidated by the surroundings.
Mealamu was primed, ready to take Kelston single-handed, which he almost did. Aorere lost narrowly, a victory of sorts.
Moon continues: "Our school had three years in the Auckland A grade largely as a result of Keven coming to the school. It raised the standards of the other players, the coaches, everything. It had been 20 years since Aorere were in the top grade. He turned up and all of a sudden the game took off."
Yet this mixture of iron will and talent might have been missed by Auckland and New Zealand rugby but for a career-changing decision after his final year at school. As an openside Mealamu had made the New Zealand under-16s and secondary school sides, but missed re-selection in the schools side in 1997.
His speed was below that of the best No 7s, and he was developing the square frame of his father, Luka, a Pan Pacific body-building champion.
Moon met father and son, suggesting the switch to hooker, although blindside was also contemplated.
Mealamu, whose childhood hero was the Waikato No 7 Duane Monkley, says: "I resisted for a while. But it seems I was born to play hooker. I don't think I would be here if I was still playing loose forward."
Here, during the Herald interview, is the lobby of the Whangarei hotel where the All Black squad was based for the first pre-World Cup camp.
There's a quiet strength to Mealamu, but without false modesty. Mealamu, who comes from a family of "sportsmen or musicians," is not one to blow his own trumpet.
Moon says: "The key to Keven is his family. I coached Auckland secondary schools and we used to go to tournaments where the Mealamu family would sleep in the car in the carpark. Their support was unbelievable. They would follow him everywhere.
"For first XV games away, we would look for transport. Keven's dad had bought a big van so we'd go up and look in the van to see who they could take, but there would be 11 family members inside.
"The power behind Keven is his mum and dad and the standards they live by, how they brought their kids up."
Mealamu had a slightly unusual upbringing, in a small Samoan community in Tokoroa, where his mother, Tise, a pre-school teacher, was born. His grandmother lived around the corner, aunts and uncles were "just up the road."
It says something about his dedication, even at intermediate school, that to make the weight for the Waikato Rangers Roller Mills team, Mealamu shed nearly 10kg through hard training.
And after mulling over the positional switch for three weeks, he and Moon spent up to 90 minutes a day practising lineout throws in the Aorere gymnasium.
His acceleration, low-centred power and dexterity were obvious from the outset with Auckland in 1999, but there were doubts whether this new breed of hooker had the physical presence to make it beyond the NPC.
Under the late Gordon Hunter, Mealamu played second fiddle to the chunky Southland journeyman Davin Heaps for the Blues in 2000.
It was a similar story under Frank Oliver, who started Slade McFarland in all but one match.
Peter Sloane didn't even require Mealamu last year, preferring McFarland and Derren Witcombe.
Mealamu, who worked as a signwriter after leaving school, thought he might have to join the workforce, especially as he and his wife-to-be Latai - they had a young son, Samuel - had just bought a house. Luckily, the Chiefs came calling.
This was a pivotal time in Mealamu's career. Although Samoa never made a direct approach, their coach John Boe had his eye on Mealamu. And it seemed his career with the Blues, where his heart lay, had struck a major hurdle.
The major bugbear was his size, or lack of it.
Mealamu was just 96kg when he first played for Auckland, and although he has gradually built up to 106kg, doubts remained about his tight-forward ability.
"The year at the Chiefs turned my career around because I got a lot of game time. I learned a lot," Mealamu says.
What a remarkable 18 months it has turned out to be, going from being unwanted by the Blues to the All Blacks' top-rated hooker entering a World Cup.
Against Australia at Eden Park last month Mealamu was supreme, making around 80m in a series of darting runs (well over twice as much ground as any forward on the field apart from Jerry Collins), including a remarkable six line breaks, and 10 tackles to boot.
So how does this deeply religious character, who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and, more importantly, doesn't bad mouth, deal with the front-row battles where the conversations and tactics can take on a rough edge.
Mealamu says: "If you meet someone like Michael Jones or Eroni Clarke ... they play hard on the field, but off the field are real genuine. You can be both. I'd rather just do a job and let the actions do the talking, although I think I'm a different guy on the field.
"I might say something now and then ... sometimes you feel like blowing your lid.
"But you respect the ones that get on with the job, who play hard, and don't do much bantering."
For Geoff Moon, the Mealamu story is a "fairytale," the rewards for a determined kid with maturity beyond his years who "always looked after everyone else ... has never forgotten where he comes from."
Mealamu, who invited all his classmates to his wedding in January, works for kids in his South Auckland community, and has even played Santa at a Moon household Christmas party.
Mealamu's mother and father will attend World Cup games, where Luka will give his son the pre-match advice he always follows.
"My dad says, 'Make sure you say your prayers before you go on the field'."
John Mitchell may talk in different terms, but if Mealamu can repeat the sort of deeds he performed against Australia at Eden Park, many All Black World Cup prayers will be answered.
The Mealamu file
Test debut: v Wales, Nov 2002 (Cardiff).
Tests: 8 (1 try).
Super 12 games: 42 (1 try).
NPC games: 45 (12 tries).
On himself: "I'm a bit different [from traditional hookers], but I try to do my best in the set pieces, and anything after that is extra. I couldn't tell at first if I was too small or not when I played for Auckland because I had good props [Craig Dowd, Paul Thomson] around me."
On getting help: "Paul Mitchell helped me out [when he first played for Auckland]. He said get comfortable when you're making the scrum hit, and be confident when you're throwing the ball."
On getting dropped by the Blues last year: "At first I was a bit disappointed, as you would be. I thought I might have to get a job, do whatever."
On opponents: "The French are always good scrummagers. You never come across a soft French scrum - they're the best. It's the way they work together, they generate so much power ... a really tight unit."
By CHRIS RATTUE