He's one of the toughest men to pull on an All Black jersey ... and he's humble, nice and has a smile like a sunbeam.
As everyone knows, the just-retired Blues player, hooker Keven Mealamu, is the nicest and toughest and most humble of All Blacks. He is 36 and has played his last game for the Blues and says he is "pretty sure" this will be his last season as an All Black, and as a player, a prospect he is facing with his usual cheerful equanimity.
He is always cheerful and thankful; he says he has a lot to be cheerful and thankful about. He is a happy person, another blessing to be grateful for and he has a great gift (although he wouldn't say so; that would be blowing his own trumpet) for making other people happy. Just looking at him makes you happy.
He greeted us with his lovely smile, which is like being given a sunbeam. He doesn't much enjoy talking about himself, but if he is doing an interview, he does it the way he does everything - with utmost politeness and commitment to the task at hand.
He really is the most obliging fellow to interview. We were at his Takanini gym, Fit60 (another thing he is, is sensible; the gym is the after-rugby plan) and he was a gracious and generous host. Would we like coffee? Were we sure? Would we like one later, before we left?
He didn't mind being perched on a dinky stool for the interview (it was like being at primary school, which not too many people could manage with grace, but he did) or on the stool atop a box for his picture. Not too many people, let alone people who are All Blacks, would have done this. He says he doesn't think he's much different from the person he was before he became an All Black and you believe him. He was no doubt a sweet and smiley little boy and he is now a sweet and smiley man who also happens to be one of the toughest buggers ever to take to a rugby field.
He said: "Would you like to press on it?" We had been talking about his ear, which is much mangled and quite famous, and everyone does ask about it. He says people, especially kids but also Prince Harry, look at his ear before they look at him. He doesn't mind that, either. He's amused by it. He didn't call Harry "Prince or anything". He called him Harry and by the way, "man, he's awesome. He's just a really nice down-to-earth man". It takes one to recognise one.
Anyway, the ear. It ought to be hideous. But somehow, attached as it is to his sunbeamy face and by now so familiar a part of him, it is instead like a loved family pet with a bung eye but a nice nature - you stop noticing the bung eye within minutes.
Even so, no, I would not like to press it. "It's clean!" he said. Oh, go on then, I said. I gave it a press. It is not the nicest object in the world to touch - it is as hard as concrete - but it is indeed extremely clean. I wondered what his wife thought of it and he said: "Well, I was lucky I got married before these ears came along. I think she sees past it. But she does wonder if it works." He could get it fixed, with plastic surgery. "Do I need to get it done?" Well, if he can. "Ha, ha. No. It's me."
His ears, and his crooked nose, are him and he regards these scars of a long rugby career as a kind of badge of honour. Why would he want to erase that history? His face tells his story and what it tells you is that he is a sweet and smiley tough bugger. He showed us his tattooed back. He has the Virgin Mary on one side and a contemporary Samoan design of an angel's wing on the other. They hurt like hell to get, he said. "But you get addicted. Have you got any?" He is an astute judge of character and knows a wimp when he meets one. And, not being a saint, he is capable of mischief.
When he played his last game for the Blues, on June 12, the fans gave him a standing ovation. He didn't mention this. He just said he had a "nice night", despite that wretched score against the Highlanders (7-44), and that it was "just a nice event to say goodbye to everyone and just thank them for everything they've done for me so ..." I didn't mention the standing ovation because if you ask him anything about adoration or talent (just hard work, he says), he squirms and it feels like bad manners to make him squirm. This is not false modesty, it's the genuine kind. A lot of sports stars go on about staying humble, and so does he - the difference is that he really means it and has really achieved it. He said that when he was a boy his dad always used to say: "'Son, do your prayers and stay humble'. I always say before I go on the field: 'Son, do your prayers and stay humble. And work hard.' You know."
He is a Catholic. I wondered whether God helped with rugby. "Oh, yeah. Yes!" I wondered whether it was the done thing to ask God to fix games. "Ha, ha! You know, I'm really grateful for what I have. So when I'm sending prayers up, it's just prayers of thanks. You can watch the news and see what some people are going through in their lives and there's just no comparison. So I'm truly grateful for what I have in life. It's pretty cool."
And he is so sweet and gracious and has such beautiful manners that it's not hard to see that he is known as the guru and kaumatua and the gentleman All Black. There's a particular sound that you equate with a tackle from the gentleman, said the photographer who has heard it many times, on the sidelines. It is a very loud whump, which nobody else creates because nobody else pulls off a tackle with such force.
He's slight, for a hooker, and he whumps, hard and loud. He is very softly and nicely spoken.
He is also a gifted artist, of children's books, the profits of which all go to Starship children's hospital. He painted an egg for this year's Starship's Big Egg Hunt fundraiser, in which celebrities and artists create eggs that are then auctioned. His featured his ears and that nose.
"And they had them all displayed together and it was honestly the hardest thing ever to walk in and see mine with all the other eggs, which were done by professional artists. I was sweating before I had to go in. I was like, 'Man! I don't want to go.' Just thinking, 'What are people going to make of it,' you know?" There is something very endearing about this.
He is not the only rugby star who is nice off the field and a demon on it but as his niceness and his aggression are at the top ends of both scales, he ought to be a total contradiction.
There was the infamous spear tackle, involving him and Tana Umaga, that took Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll out of the 2005 test series.
He sighed, which is as near to being publicly annoyed as he probably ever lets himself get, and said: "You know, it happened 10 years ago." I do know because there was a story about it last week. "Was there? That's what I can't get over. Man!"
I'd asked because I was interested in the duality of his public profile and whether he'd spent any time analysing it. He said: "Um. I think you can still be tough and respectful at the same time. I think the two things go hand and hand on a rugby field." The difference between anger and aggression, he said, is that "anger is clouded and it's emotional, and when it's aggression you're clear on what you want to do. It's focused. I know there are people who don't know the difference." He may have meant me.
He is also known as Daddy Discipline because part of his job has been to tell off the younger players if they're playing up. He said: "I can do stern. I don't mind. Some of the guys like that."
I asked, doubtingly, if he could be stern at home with the kids and he looked at me, possibly sternly. "Yes." Can he really? "I don't know why you think [I can't]." Oh, because he's so nice. "Have you seen me on the rugby field? Ha, ha."
He said he wasn't a saint, meaning I wasn't to paint him as one, and that of course he got angry. "I am human, you know." Still, I was amazed to hear that sometimes people say things to him, such as: "Why don't you retire?" What does he say to such rude people? "You're expected to just smile and say 'thank you' and 'good bye'. I just always think to myself: 'Just you wait and see.' Not everyone is the same. There are some rugby players who don't stand for that sort of stuff."
There was no point in asking him to name them. He could have a post-rugby career as a diplomat. I asked who he liked best of Sir John Kirwan, Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen and he was horrified. "You can't do that! You can't do that! They're all good men and I've learnt so much from all of them."
I did ask whether he thought Sir John wasn't the right coach for the Blues and he said: "I think probably, you know, when they say sometimes your strengths are your biggest weaknesses. I'm a loyal person, so I'll back whoever's coaching to the hilt." Did he mean that was one of his weaknesses? "Well, it's not a weakness. You know, that's the man in charge and I'll be there to give them everything I've got - right to the end."
He gets on with everyone - he said you have to be able to have absolute trust in your teammates - and he has never displayed the remotest sign of thinking he was a bit special. That is just more good fortune, he said, that he is blessed with a family and a faith and that those things have kept him grounded.
I think he has also been smart about managing the level of public profile he's comfortable with. He doesn't do ads or endorsements, other than the ones he's contractually obliged to do. I asked why Dan Carter got undies ads and he didn't, and he laughed like mad and said: "If you look at Dan in undies and me in undies, you'd probably want to stay with Dan in undies."
He lives on almost two acres, on a lifestyle block, partly for reasons of privacy, I guessed: "In all honesty, yes."
So he is really rather a private person who lives a rather public life which involves inviting strangers to press his mangled ear and look at his tattoos. A tough guy who is a sweetheart. A rugby star who has resisted ever believing he was a star. And yet the most complicated thing about him is that he is completely uncomplicated - which might be the one compliment he wouldn't mind being given.