A Perfect Gentleman: The Sir Wilson Whineray Story
by Bob Howitt (HarperCollins $49.99)

The first encounter between Wilson Whineray and Colin Meads has a timeless Kiwi flavour.

The young forwards, on the cusp of legendary rugby careers, roomed together at Wanganui's Grand Hotel before a July 1955 trial game to select a New Zealand Colts side.

"G'day," said the raw-boned Meads, who had come over from a King Country farm. "Where you from?"

Whineray, 20, replied that he was studying at Massey College in Palmerston North, but that he hailed from Auckland.

Ever hopeful, the strapping young prop told the rangy Meads that it would be great if they were both selected for the team to tour - of all places - Ceylon.

"Yeah," said Meads. "Where the hell's Ceylon anyway?"

A press report of the trial game noted: "Two of the most conspicuous forwards were W.J. Whineray, who scored a try, and C.E. Meads."

The selectors agreed, and picked the pair to tour the exotic rugby destination. The Colts played five, won five and Whineray's star began to shine.

Coach J.J. Stewart - who two decades later finally got the plum All Black job - called the fair-haired front-rower, who bagged five tries on tour, a tower of strength.

Added the astute Taranaki man: "I am sure he will go further in the game and I'll be surprised if he does not go right to the top."

Prolific sports writer Bob Howitt tracks Whineray's path to the top in A Perfect Gentleman The Sir Wilson Whineray Story.

Howitt's 18th book on the game fills a gaping hole in rugby annals, given Whineray's status among the best of All Black captains, and the absence until now of a decent biography of one of the game's most respected figures. In the book, written with Whineray's reluctant co-operation, Howitt unearths some forgotten tales to add to rugby's storehouse, and presents a portrait of a man who over-achieved on the footy paddock and again rose to top when his playing days were finished, carving out a remarkable business career.

He took papers for a commerce degree during the celebrated 1963-64 UK tour and four years later won a scholarship that got him and his family to Harvard in Massachusetts, where he earned an MBA. He came home and in 1969 started work at Alex Harvey Industries; 34 years later he retired as chairman of Carter Holt Harvey.

One of four All Black knights - the others being Meads, the oldest surviving All Black Sir Fred "The Needle" Allen and Whineray's successor as skipper, Sir Brian Lochore - "Noddy" Whineray is notable in having an on-field move named after him.

The "Willie away" owes its origins to a moderate French team that toured New Zealand in 1961.

As Howitt tells it the French gave the All Blacks a fright in the first test at Eden Park, throwing long and surging round the end of the lineout.

Two sorties into New Zealand territory led to drop-goals by Pierre Albaladejo, "M'sieur L'Drop". Francois Moncla's men could not sustain their assaults and went down 13-6 but Whineray and his halfback, Des Connor took a French lesson off the park and made it folklore.

As a player, Whineray was tough and durable. He wore the black jersey 77 times, and was All Black skipper on 69 of those occasions.

All up he got on the park for 240 first class games. He did not shirk from the tough stuff, an attitude that might have sprung from his boyhood love of boxing and heavyweight titles won while at university.

One of Howitt's yarns illustrates Whineray's steel: in April 1957 the rising rugby star played the first 40 minutes of a South Island trial in Christchurch and then drove to Dunedin with three Lincoln College students to reclaim his heavyweight university boxing title in the Town Hall feature fight that evening.

In a test against France, a steamed-up Meads wanted retribution after centre Paul Little was crudely felled. Whineray dragged Pinetree away, and a short time later Meads scored.

"That hurts them more than you belting them," remarked the skipper.

The Irish winger Sir Anthony O'Reilly - who played against Whineray on the 1959 Lions tour before he too embarked on a glittering corporate career - was always an admirer of his friend and rival's "fairness and reasonableness".

Whineray, notes O'Reilly in a generous forward, represents "all that is good and upright in the land of the long white cloud".