What was meant to be a game of celebration has taken on a grim feel for Keven Mealamu.
New Zealand rugby’s most enduring player notches his 175th and final game for the Blues on Friday but getting a smile out of the personable hooker this week hasn’t been easy.
Mealamu is taking time to get over the death of former All Black Jerry Collins, one of his closest friends during a 12-year Test career.
It has been hard to make rugby the focus, particularly when preparing for a game against the Highlanders at Eden Park which otherwise carries little meaning.
The Blues are on the verge of recording their worst-ever season, a painful note to leave on for 36-year-old Mealamu, who has ridden out all manner of highs and lows at New Zealand’s biggest franchise since 2000.
“It’s all making things a bit more sombre than I personally would have liked,” Mealamu told NZ Newswire.
“We’ve been through a lot of tough times this year and Jerry’s death was a real shock for me. But I keep saying it, there’s nothing I wouldn’t take back.”
Mealamu is also saddened that long-time front-row colleague Tony Woodcock will miss Friday’s game because of a shoulder injury.
All Blacks propping great Woodcock is regarded as unlikely to return next year, leaving his Super Rugby caps tally on 149.
Mealamu, who has been handed the captain’s armband for his final game, hopes Blues management and coaching staff next year will absorb plenty of lessons from this season’s failings.
The future of coach Sir John Kirwan is in doubt because of a split at board level, with one of the fallouts being a lack of notable signings to replace a raft of departing players.
“We’re drawing on some good depth this year, which is going to help us,” Mealamu said.
“But this is a tough competition and it’ll be really important that things are learned and that this is really a big springboard for us.”
His last playing commitments will be for the All Blacks, culminating in a likely role at the World Cup behind first-choice hooker Dane Coles.
Mealamu says he has learned to look after his body and has no doubt he can perform at international level and add to his 123 Tests.
He has a “couple of things on the table” for next year, one of which could be in a rugby coaching or management role to give back to a sport he feels he owes plenty.
Despite the exhausting nature of Super Rugby and the Blues’ modest recent results, Mealamu says he will miss the domestic game and the personal growth it promotes.
“To be tested daily, that’s something I really enjoyed here,” he said.
“It’s about trying to get better every day, and no doubt I’ll try to do that in the next part of my life, in the career that I go down.
“But there’s something about going out there with your teammates, that’s something I’ll really miss.”
MEALAMU’S TOTAL NUMBERS
123 – All Blacks Tests 2002-14 (three as captain, world record 47 from the reserves)
1 – All Black game 2004 (versus the Barbarians)
174 – Super Rugby Games 2000-14 (151 for the Blues, 11 for the Chiefs in 2002)
76 – NPC Games 1999-2014 (all for Auckland)
MOST SUPER RUGBY CAPS
174 – Keven Mealamu (Blues, Chiefs)
162 – Nathan Sharpe (Reds, Force)
158 – Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes, Blues, Highlanders)
153 – Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders)
151 – Corey Flynn (Crusaders)
149 – Tony Woodcock (Blues, Highlanders)
148 – Victor Matfield (Cats, Bulls)
145 – Stephen Moore (Brumbies)