Sir Colin Meads has died after a battle with cancer and his family say they "will miss him terribly".

He passed away this morning.

He was 81. His loss will be mourned throughout the rugby-playing world.

Meads was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and he took a typically combative attitude towards it, vowing to "beat the bastard".

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In 133 matches for the All Blacks between 1957 and 1971, the former King Country lock played 55 tests and became recognised throughout the world as the face of New Zealand rugby.

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His family issued a statement through New Zealand Rugby.

NZR said his wife Verna, Lady Meads and the couple's five children wished "to express their sincere gratitude for the care and support the family has received in the past 12 months"since his diagnosis.

"Our heartfelt thanks to the staff at Te Kuiti Medical Centre, particularly doctors David McLean and Keith Buswell, and to the nursing staff at Te Kuiti Hospital for their superb care of Colin," the family said.

"To our friends, thank you for your love and care. The visits and phone calls were enjoyed by Colin and appreciated by us all.

"To those throughout the country who sent Colin best wishes, we thank you for your kindness."

Meads' youngest daughter Shelley Mitchell paid tribute.

"Dad led a full life," she said. "He loved being an All Black and he loved his family dearly.

"We will miss him terribly."

Sir Colin is survived by Lady Meads and their children Karen, Kelvin, Rhonda, Glynn and Shelley; their 14 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

The Meads family has requested privacy at this time.

News of his passing has been met with sadness around the world.

The All Blacks tweeted about his death this afternoon. Meads was All Black number 583.

Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw took to Facebook to extend his sympathy to Verna and the rest of the Meads family.

"Sad to hear the news of the passing of one of our greatest All Blacks and great New Zealanders," McCaw wrote.

"Although I never got to see him play, I was lucky over the years to meet the great man on a lot of occasions and I admired how humble he was and how he would give his time so freely to help anyone or any cause in need."

McCaw's successor in the All Blacks, Kieran Read, said it was "an incredibly sad day".

"Sir Colin was an icon of our game," the captain said. "I met him a few times and he was always keen to share a beer and have a yarn. On behalf of all players, our thoughts go out to his family at this time."

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen echoed Read's sentiments.

"The thoughts of the entire All Blacks team are with Sir Colin's family at this incredibly sad time," Hansen said. "His achievements in the black jersey are part of the All Blacks legacy and his loss will be felt by rugby people all over the world."

One of the first to pay tribute to Sir Colin was Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

"RIP Sir Colin Meads. #legend," she tweeted.

Prime Minister Bill English said it was a sad day for New Zealand rugby and for New Zealand.

"I have had the privilege of getting to know Sir Colin. He was not only a great All Black but also a genuinely good New Zealand bloke.

"He represented what it means to be a New Zealander. He was no-nonsense, reliable, hardworking, warm and very generous with his time.

"I remember when I was younger hearing stories about how he used to shear sheep all day and go running at night. I thought I'd give it a go. I quickly learned the Meads legend was built on physical and mental toughness.

"My thoughts are with Sir Colin's wife Lady Verna, and his family and friends at this time."

• Listen: A tribute to Sir Colin Meads

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters issued a statement saying Meads "was, and still is, one of New Zealand's rugby greats - but so much more".

"He wore his celebrity on a sound and sensible set of shoulders," Peters said.

"He was a quintessential unassuming New Zealander - one of those we feel especially proud of as a nation.

"Colin Meads emerged as a rugby talent in an era of amateurism, and did not experience playing in the professional game as it is today. He gave so much of his time to the sport, and we are grateful to him.

"He was such a great inspiration to so many young Kiwis, on the field and off. We will miss him.

"Colin Meads was legendary and it is fitting that Te Kuiti has a marvellous statute of him.

"New Zealand First sends our condolences to Lady Meads and their family."

Although he began his international career as a flanker, it was as a lock that Meads played most of his rugby.

In 1973 Meads captained a President's 15 to victory over the All Blacks before retiring after a record 361 first-class matches. He continued to play for his Waitete club until 1975.

He turned to administration and coaching at provincial level, and selected and coached North Island teams before being promoted to the national selection panel in 1986.

The latter appointment was brief because Meads decided to join the rebel Cavaliers tour of South Africa as coach. He was axed from the panel and for a time was persona non grata to the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU).

In time he was forgiven and in 1992 was elected on to the NZRU council and managed the All Blacks teams of 1994 and 1995.

He fell victim to an administrative revamp of the council in 1996 as professionalism pushed aside many links with the past.

Colin Meads in action during the first test at Carisbrook, Lions Tour 1971. Photo / New Zealand Herald File Photograph
Colin Meads in action during the first test at Carisbrook, Lions Tour 1971. Photo / New Zealand Herald File Photograph

There was no debate in late 1999 when New Zealand Rugby Monthly magazine named him the New Zealand Player of the Century and in the 2001 New Year's Honours list he was made a New Zealand Companion of Merit.

In June this year Meads helped unveil a 2.7m statue of himself in his hometown, Te Kuiti. In a speech, former All Blacks captain Brian Lochore said: "What he has done for Te Kuiti is amazing ... but what he has done for New Zealand is unsurpassable."

All Blacks legend Colin Meads evades a tackle in the match against Border during the 1970 tour of South Africa.
All Blacks legend Colin Meads evades a tackle in the match against Border during the 1970 tour of South Africa.