Sir Wilson Whineray: Sun shines on, but a great man is gone

By D.J. Cameron

Despite his exceptional talents in the arenas of sport and business, Sir Wilson Whineray never seemed to see himself as any more gifted than the next person.

Sir Wilson Whineray. Photo / NZPA
Sir Wilson Whineray. Photo / NZPA

Sir Wilson James Whineray, one of the few great New Zealanders, was in hospital and missed the gathering last month of the other All Black knights when the Barbarians honoured them at the club's 75th birthday dinner. When a friend visited him, Sir Wilson was typically staunch. He seemed to sense that time was running out.

His reaction echoed the way Sir Wilson had faced the private and public and sporting problems since his school days - "the world will still go on, the sun will still shine".

Yesterday Sir Wilson's 77-year life was over, and around the world, in palaces and dressing rooms, on farms and in offices, work stopped too. A great New Zealander had gone. The sun might shine the next day, but the sadness and the memories will last.

Sir Wilson was an exceptional man for he was born with enormous talents, developed other graces in sport and business and yet never seemed to regard himself as more gifted than the next man. They lived under the same sun.

Yet he might, had he wished, have become Governor-General. His reaction was that he and his wife, Beth, had grown a family and knitted a spirit that did not need a regal polish.

In the chummier surrounds of sport and a pub, friends said he should become Prime Minister. He used to react with vast humour at this. "No one would vote for me."

Wilson and his four siblings grew up like many Kiwi youngsters. There was no golden spoon available for any of the Whineray children.

He was the only one to think of being involved in farming, and after leaving Auckland Grammar - where he was not the most nimble of halfbacks - set off to work on farms and study in five New Zealand areas, gaining skill and improving his physique with old-fashioned hard work at rugby in Wairarapa, Mid-Canterbury, Manawatu, Canterbury, and finally settling to business life in Auckland.

The sort-of halfback grew into a solid front row forward, surprisingly quick about the park, and developed a talent for boxing which he used sparingly on the rugby field.

Once Sir Wilson, propping for Grammar Old Boys, was harassed by a stroppy opposition prop. He did not react immediately. The opposition were appearing on Eden Park No 1 for the first time in ages, and Wilson did not want to spoil the occasion.

But when the game was over 29 players walked off, and one was flat on his back.

One of the peaks of Sir Wilson's All Black career came as captain during the 1963-64 tour of the UK, Ireland, France and Canada.

Whineray had not been especially effective early on in his captaincy, losing the second test against Australia which he took as a disgrace.

Fortunately, he came alongside Herald rugby reporter Terry McLean. The loss, McLean told him, was not a disgrace. It was not all his fault. For perhaps the first time Sir Wilson heard the advice. "The end of the world is not nigh," said McLean. "The sun will still come up in the morning."

Whineray's men won the next test, and by the 1963-64 tour he was a more relaxed leader. He even gave his players a distinctive name: "Beavers". In return the players gave their total respect. As did many most rugby fans in Britain - especially the Welsh.

The All Blacks had defeated Wales, Ireland, France and England, and drew with Scotland.

Yet everyone, especially the Welsh, regarded the tour finale at Cardiff Arms Park against a strong Barbarians side as the final test - the great game on the great ground against great opponents.

"That caused a problem," said Sir Wilson afterwards. "Before the tests we used separate buses, the test team in one, the rest in the other. However, the Welsh wanted us to use one very big bus.

"So we all piled in together, and suddenly a marvellous atmosphere developed, and I hoped the mood would be the same when we played. The Welsh loved us." They sang, "We'll keep a welcome in the hillsides ... when you come home again to Wales" - a Welsh rugby chant.

Wilson capped the 36-3 win with a brilliant dummy and try by the posts, and capped the occasion by singing on the field with the match ball up his jumper.

Sir Wilson boxed during his university days and had great fun playing social cricket with the Fingletoads at Cornwall, despite a rather bent-elbow delivery.

After sport and big business Wilson and Beth relished the privacy of their Remuera home, a magnet for their children and grandchildren.

How good was he, compared with some of rugby's other giants?

Dave Gallaher and Maurice Brownlie were the great forwards in the first half of the 20th century, Don Clarke and Jonah Lomu had colossal talent and now Richie McCaw promises to become No 1.

But Sir Wilson Whineray will be hard to supplant. He was a player of high skill even in the low life of the scrum, he gained the personal touch that made him the perfect captain. He succeeded in business and, most of all, headed a splendid family.

And his life had superb balance - as if he was certain that whatever happened the sun would shine tomorrow.

Sadly it will not shine again on Sir Wilson James Whineray, the finest rugby man New Zealand has bred.

D.J. (Don) Cameron was a Herald rugby and cricket writer from 1950 to 1998.

A true leader on and off field

Sir Wilson Whineray could disarm striking workers at Kinleith with the line "I'm just an ordinary rugby player", says longtime business associate John Maasland.

"He was a clear thinker, a gentleman, a man who understood how to deal with people, always very quiet, but he had a steely business mind at the same time. Just a lovely guy," said Mr Maasland, who succeeded Sir Wilson as chairman of Carter Holt Harvey and sat on the board of APN News & Media with the former All Black captain.

Peter Springfield, who was chief executive of Carter Holt when Sir Wilson chaired the board, also remembered him as a leader who could work with the unions and different shareholders to achieve consensus.

"He was a great leader of people," Mr Springfield said.

After hanging up his rugby boots, Sir Wilson Whineray had an equally stellar career in the world of business, starting with an MBA from Harvard University. He mixed his studies with the Harvard Business School Rugby Football Club before returning to New Zealand in 1969 where he started work at Alex Harvey Industries.

The company later became Carter Holt Harvey, where he became deputy managing director, then chairman.

He was managing director of the New Zealand Wool Marketing Corporation in 1973-1974, chairman of the National Bank of New Zealand and a director of Auckland International Airport and APN News & Media.

Outside business, he chaired the Hillary Commission from 1993 to 1998 and was honorary colonel of the SAS from 1997 to 2001.

Sir Wilson was knighted in 1998 "for services to sport and business management".

Prime Minister John Key said Sir Wilson's business acumen was hugely respected.

"He made his mark at APN, the New Zealand Wool Marketing Corporation, National Bank and Auckland International Airport, although most of us remember his time at the helm of Carter Holt Harvey," Mr Key said.

- Bernard Orsman

- NZ Herald

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