Keven Mealamu has a soldier's face. It shows every battle - a nick, a scar, a lump, a bruise and a bit of structural disfigurement from having his head in places only the bravest would dare to stick it.

And in rugby terms, he's about to be confirmed as the man who has stuck his head in more dangerous places than any other New Zealander. More than even the great Colin Meads as Mealamu will, presumably, play his 362nd first-class game in Cardiff next weekend.

"He's a modern-day phenomenon, the way he's been able to have longevity in the game," says fellow All Black Aaron Cruden. "To break that record is no small feat. He is irreplaceable. He's one of those guys who every week - regardless of his role - holds such high standards. As a young guy coming in, when you see that, from a guy his age [35] to be so professional and look after his body so well, you admire it and take lessons from it in what you need to be to stay in this game as long as he has."

Cruden knows all about looking into that craggy face of Mealamu's, about having to stand in front of one of the nicest, humblest, biggest-hearted humans and ask for forgiveness.


Mealamu is what the All Blacks call the end of the line. He is 'Daddy Discipline', one of the senior leaders who transgressors are sent to see. It's a powerful experience - having to admit frailty and apologise to a man such as Mealamu. He has put 13 years into the black jersey and is a man who is difficult not to like and respect. He's lived his life to the highest professional and moral standards.

So for those All Blacks who breach protocol, or fail to meet expected behavioural standards, the bollocking from the coaching staff is manageable. The bit that is terrifying and sobering, is sitting in front of Mealamu and confessing.

It's one thing to be told by management you have been a dickhead, another to admit it to a peer. But that is the All Blacks' way. For 10 years, they have used peer policing and who better than Mealamu to be the sheriff?

"I just think it's so much more powerful when it's coming from the players," says Mealamu on the reason why peer discipline is employed. "It carries a lot of weight when it's coming from the coaches, but I believe it's about 10-fold when it's coming from the guys you play right next to. You have let down the guys who trust you.

"It's a funny situation because most of the time you are laughing with the guys - cracking up. We work hard together and there are a lot fun times so if it ever gets to the awkward moment when it's like that ... you feel for them.

"You know if you were in that situation the last thing you wanted to do was let your mates down. It's something you wouldn't want to do."

It wasn't something Cruden wanted to do, especially as he's one of the senior leaders. There he was planning strategy and all sorts with Mealamu and the rest of the group one week, then one high-profile incident later, being forced to confess his sins and seek forgiveness.

"That was probably the toughest thing I have had to do in my career - to look guys in the eye who I respect and admire and apologise for my actions which I know they were extremely disappointed in and pissed off about," says Cruden. "And rightly so, and so was I. They told me exactly how it is. They were honest with me, which is what I wanted and, once they did that, that is when they put their arm around me and welcomed me back into their environment.


"That just shows the quality of Kev. There was this sterness and then the fact he was able to point somebody out and then still go out there and make sure they are OK. That is what makes him a great All Black and a great man."

Mealamu has always been a man of contradictions. God-fearing, family man off the field who would give anyone the shirt off his back if they asked yet, on the field, he's of the kill-or-be-killed mindset.

Richie McCaw might be tougher, but that would be about it in world rugby. No one gets the better of Mealamu physically and yet no one is more of a gentleman. Being effectively two characters is probably why he feels he can say to the naughty boys what needs to be said and then hug them before they leave.

"Being a parent, you understand there are different ways of handling situations," he says. "One way doesn't work for everyone and people are different. There's a lot of ways you can tell someone something. We all live under the same rules but you can still treat them as individuals.

"We never try to hide it. You will always know if you have done something wrong but we always try to make sure we approach things in a way that will get through to that person and that they understand what's happened."

Aaron Smith is another young All Black who has seen the two sides of Mealamu. The halfback is one of the team's more exuberant characters - he brings the sort of passion, energy and quirkiness senior players love. It's refreshing and Smith mostly makes Mealamu laugh.

But there have been times when he hasn't and Smith won't forget the look on Mealamu's face on those occasions. In 2012, Smith was late back to the team hotel after a test in Wellington and forced to the bench the following week.

"I've had a couple of hiccups and your worst fear is not seeing your coach ... it's seeing one of your team-mates. Going to talk to a coach, you know what you are going to get. But when you have to see Kevy ... he won't say much, he won't yell at you. But the face and the look ... when one of your peers [who] you've looked up to since you were a kid ... looking at you disappointed like that, it really shoots home.

"You say your bit, he says his bit and then he gives you a bloody hug and smiles at you. It's genuine. He understands. He tells you to sort it out. He tells you what to do from there and then he hugs you and says, 'I love you, I'm here for you and don't do it again' and sends you on your way. You usually end up up a lot better than you thought you would ... but there is that little moment when you get that look."

Like Cruden, Smith knows he never wants to be on the wrong side of Mealamu again.

"I guess the way he is, the way he carries himself, he is probably the nicest guy in New Zealand rugby," says Smith. "He always has a smile on his face. He's always happy. He's the genuine team man. He's on the back seat so he runs everything. You learn so much from a guy like that. He doesn't go chasing the attention, he's just himself.

"I can remember my first day as an All Black. He came in and sat next to me at lunch and said, 'I don't want you to feel like this team is a burden, I just want you to express yourself and be yourself'. I still remember that.

"I also remember I had a more light-hearted incident when I had to see him when I was on music and I wasn't getting it right and I was called to the back. And he gave me the look ... he's all smiles and cuddly and then he gave me the death look and I was ... 'wow, I'll sort the music Kevy'."

Keven's evolution
1999: Plays first game for Auckland.
2000: Signed by Blues.
2002: Misses out on Blues selection but picked up by Chiefs and plays 11 games.
2002: Named in All Blacks squad to tour Europe and makes test debut in Cardiff.
2003: Plays superbly for Blues who win third Super Rugby title and a critical member of All Blacks World Cup squad.
2004: Infamous set-to with Wallaby hooker Brendan Cannon that sees them exchange punches in Wellington.
2005: Under fire for his role in upending Brian O'Driscoll in first Lions test.
2007: Wins 50th cap against Romania.
2008: Captains All Blacks for first time in Edinburgh against Scotland.
2011: Captain for matches against South Africa and Japan and surpasses Sean Fitzpatrick as most capped All Black hooker.
2012: Wins 100th cap in Brisbane.
2014: Becomes fifth most capped player in rugby history.