Wilson Whineray, acclaimed by many as the All Blacks’ greatest ever captain, died in Auckland on Monday after a battle with cancer, the New Zealand Rugby Union said. He was 77.
Whineray played 77 matches for the All Blacks, including 67 as captain. Of the 32 Tests he played for New Zealand, he led them in 30. His international career stretched from 1957, when he made his debut against Australia, until 1965 when he retired after a series victory over Australia.
Whineray’s career encompassed those of great players such as Colin Meads, Brian Lochore and Kel Tremain, and the teams he led in the early to mid-1960s are still regarded as the best All Blacks line-up of all time.
Terry McLean, New Zealand’s most distinguished rugby writer, said “I would unhesitatingly acclaim him as New Zealand’s greatest captain.”
Prime Minister John Key echoed those sentiments in one of many tributes to Whineray on Monday.
“Sir Wilson was a great All Black and may have been the greatest captain we ever had,” Key said.
“This is a loss all of New Zealand will feel.”
Whineray, who played at prop throughout his career and was the anchor of many All Blacks scrums, also had a lengthy first class career, representing the Waikato, Auckland and Canterbury provinces. He retired in 1966 and went on to a stellar business career, chairing the boards of some of New Zealand’s largest companies.
He was knighted in 1994 for his services to sport and commerce.
In its biography of Whineray on its website, the New Zealand union describes Whineray as “a towering figure” in New Zealand rugby.
“The Whineray Test record … needs to be put in the context of his playing period,” leading rugby writer Lindsay Knight said.
“Most seasons in which Whineray was an All Black there was on average only two or three Tests a year. Had programs then been as hefty as today, Whineray’s Test tally undoubtedly would have been in the 70s or 80s.”
Knight described Whineray as “a fine player and remarkably mobile and athletic in the open,” and that “the only doubts raised over his rugby ability were over his scrummaging prowess and he was placed under pressure particularly on the 1960 tour of South Africa by the Springbok Piet du Toit.”
Whineray was a patron of the New Zealand union and a head of its rugby foundation, which promotes the development of the sport. His popularity was such that he was tipped during the 1990s as a possible future Governor General – the representative of the Queen in New Zealand.
“Today is a very sad day,” New Zealand Rugby Union chairman Mike Eagle said.
“We have lost one of New Zealand’s great heroes and for the rugby community we have lost a much-loved patron and champion of rugby.”