Former All Black great, Sir Colin Meads, right, and his wife Vera pose for a photo with the statue of himself at the unveiling in Te Kuiti, New Zealand. Meads, a famously tough All Blacks lock hailed New Zealand's greatest rugby player of the twentieth century, has died after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 81. Meads played 55 tests among 133 games for New Zealand between 1957 and 1971 - a number thought prodigious in an era in which the All Blacks seldom played more than four tests a year. Photo: Alan Gibson/AP

World Rugby led global tributes Sunday to All Blacks great Colin Meads who died aged 81 following a year-long battle with cancer.

The legendary hardman, with a reputation for training by running up hills with a sheep under each arm, played 133 games, including 55 Tests, during his 14 years with the All Blacks until his retirement in 1971.

He was feared on the field and revered off it, known affectionately by his nickname "Pinetree" and recognised around the world as the face of New Zealand rugby.

"World Rugby is saddened by loss of @AllBlacks legend Sir Colin Meads. Our thoughts are with the Meads family and New Zealand Rugby family, " World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper tweeted. 

Throughout New Zealand, people placed rugby balls outside the front door of their homes in a show of respect to the man named New Zealand Rugby's player of the 20th century. 

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said it was an "incredibly sad time" and "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." 

"This is an incredibly sad day," added current All Blacks captain Kieran Read. "Sir Colin was an icon of our game. I met him a few times and he was always keen to share a beer and have a yarn."

Another All Blacks great, Bryan Williams, said he was "completely overawed" when in the company of Meads. 

As former teammates, opponents and fans took to social media to share their memories of Meads, former Wallabies lock Peter Fitzsimmons rated him "with Jonah Lomu, one of the two greatest All Blacks", recalling former All Blacks wing Lomu who died two years ago from a kidney ailment.

South African wing Ruan Combrinck tweeted: "One of the greatest. Had the privilege of meeting Sir Colin Meads a few years ago. Now he's gone up to heaven. Another legend gone. RIP sir." 

At 1.92 metres (6ft 3in), Meads was not a giant of a lock but he had a combativeness that made him a tough competitor and a player capable of scrapping well for the ball in the days when lifting in lineouts was illegal.

New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey said Meads left an unrivalled mark on the game. 

"Sir Colin is an icon of rugby and New Zealand. Uncompromising on the field, his exploits are that of folklore, while he was just as revered off the field."

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