Regional rugby

Page 11 – King Country rugby

King Country logo

King Country embodies the rural traditions long seen as the backbone of grassroots rugby in this country. Its representative team plays in the semi-professional Heartland Championship, in which the top trophy is named after the union’s legendary Colin (‘Pinetree’) Meads, a personification of New Zealand rugby’s self-image. King Country has not yet won the Meads Cup, but in 2015 it won the Lochore Cup, which is contested by the fifth- to eighth-ranked Heartland teams. Along with Thames Valley, Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Taranaki and Counties Manukau, King Country is part of the Chiefs Super Rugby franchise.

The King Country Rugby Football Union was formed in 1922. An earlier attempt to form a Main Trunk Union involving a number of smaller sub-unions in the central North Island had failed to gain approval from the New Zealand Rugby Union. Over the next decade King Country grew by acquiring Kāwhia, Ōtorohanga and Kaitīeke. The Ruapehu sub-union centred on Ōhakune returned to its original parent union of Wanganui in 1970, but in 1987 the Taupo sub-union joined King Country from Hawke’s Bay.

Great moments in King Country rugby

Like many rural unions, King Country has struggled to attract and retain players in the professional era. King Country was promoted to the NPC’s first division in 1992 and managed to cling on to top-flight status until it was relegated at the end of the 1996 season. King Country’s fortunes then went into decline, and by the early 2000s the team found itself in the third division.

King Country has failed in 18 attempts to win the Ranfurly Shield. A 19–16 loss to the all-conquering Hawke’s Bay side in 1969 remains King Country’s best effort in a shield challenge. They trailed 19–6 early in the second half before Meads inspired his team to fight back with two converted tries. He seemed to be everywhere, and one of the touch judges is said to have asked the referee to count how many Bay players were on the field – ‘I think Meads might have eaten one’.

In 1966 King Country combined with near neighbours Wanganui to defeat the British Lions 12–6 in one of the biggest triumphs for rugby in the region.

Pinetree

King Country rugby and Colin Meads are inseparable. Chosen by New Zealand Rugby Monthly in 1999 as New Zealand’s Player of the Century, Meads was one of the few players known to most simply by his nickname – Pinetree. He was given this name by teammates on the New Zealand under-23s’ 1958 tour of Japan. Raised on a farm outside Te Kuiti, Meads exemplified the rugged, rural image of heartland rugby in this country. He was a backblocks farmer who – despite becoming the biggest name in New Zealand rugby and playing a then-record 55 tests – remained loyal to his small provincial union as a player, coach and administrator.

In the age of professional rugby, Meads was seen by the media and the public as a champion of the game’s old values. His strength was legendary. For most of Meads’ playing days substitutes were not allowed. During the 1970 tour of South Africa he broke his arm while playing against Eastern Transvaal but stayed on the field. At the end of the match Meads muttered, ‘At least we won the bloody game.’ His rugged style did not endear him to all. In a match against Scotland at Murrayfield in 1967 Meads became only the second All Black to be ordered off in a test for dangerous play. And he ended the career of the Wallaby halfback Ken Catchpole by wrenching his leg while he was pinned in a ruck during the first test of the 1968 series.

… and others

Meads is undoubtedly the most famous of King Country’s eight All Blacks. But he was not the only Meads to wear the black jersey. Stan Meads played 30 times for the All Blacks between 1961 and 1966. Colin later noted in his best-seller Colin Meads, All Black, that ‘without being parochial, biased or unduly moved by brotherly love, I would say that Stan was the best [locking] partner of all the great ones I had.’

Another notable player who has worn the maroon and gold of King Country is Martin Johnson, the captain of the 2003 World Cup winners, England. Johnson played two seasons for King Country in 1989–90 and was selected for the New Zealand under-21 side before returning home. Paul Mitchell (the brother of former All Black coach John Mitchell and son-in-law of Colin Meads) has played the most first-class games for King Country, 147 between 1988 and 2001. Hutana Coffin scored a record 917 points for the union between 1984 and 1995.

Tell us your King Country rugby stories

Add your story to the Community contributions section below. We're also keen to get more regional rugby images - please email us at info@nzhistory.net.nz if you can help.

How to cite this page

'King Country rugby', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/regional-rugby/king-country, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-Aug-2017

Community contributions

2 comments have been posted about King Country rugby

What do you know?

Joel warren

Posted: 24 Jul 2016

I dont know if this is the right place to post this but...my grand father darrell harry was a player for king counrty at the same time as meads..i never got to meet my grand father but have heard stories of him being a amazing player, and then go on to coach northern region teams with the likes of sean fitzpatriick and frano botica to name a few..i just wondering if anyone would know where i could find the old 50-60s team photos would be something nice to show my childern..kiaora whanau

Ray Wiley

Posted: 01 Jun 2012

As a young guy, I can recall my Dad taking me to watch King Country play Golden Bay - Motueka in Taumarunui - in 1958 I think. We watched the game off the back of one of Johnny Marriner's trucks I recall. I was amazed that Golden Bay - Motueka colours were brown and white striped. I had never heard of brown being in a rugby jersey before.