Almost a year to the day after seeing his beloved All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup for the second time, Sir Wilson James Whineray has died at 77.

Whineray, the man regarded by many as the greatest to ever captain the All Blacks, passed away peacefully and surrounded by family early this morning at Auckland Hospital.

"Sir Wilson was a great All Black and may have been the greatest captain we ever had,'' Prime Minister John Key said. "This is a loss all of New Zealand will feel.''

Whineray pulled on the black jersey for the first time in 1957, and the very next year he was given the honour of captaining the side. The young prop was just 23 and he eventually became the longest-serving leader of the All Blacks.


He represented his country in 77 matches including 32 tests - a massive number considering the All Blacks played only two or three test matches a year - and he captained the side 67 times.

"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.''

But Whineray had many more strings to his bow than just rugby.

After retiring from the sport in 1966 - the year after he was named New Zealand sportsman of the year - Whineray won a scholarship to attend Harvard University, where he studied for an MBA.

He then enjoyed a successful second life as a businessman, spending 10 years as chairman of the board Carter Holt Harvey, of one of the country's largest companies, and serving on the boards of several other companies.

"His business acumen was hugely respected as well,'' Mr Key said. "He was the rare breed of man whose modesty and humility gave no hint of the greatness he had achieved.''

Whineray was chairman of sports funding body the Hillary Commission from 1993 to 1998, and in 1997 he was appointed the honorary Colonel-Commandant of the New Zealand Special Air Services - a position he held for five years, and one of which he was very proud.

Whineray eventually returned to the game he loved. From 1980, he was on the Eden Park board of control and, after serving rugby in a number of advisory roles, he became the NZRU patron in 2003.

Four years later, he became just the fourth person to be inducted into the International Rugby Board hall of fame.

For his services to sport and business management, Whineray became Sir Wilson in 1998. He was reportedly considered to become the Governor-General of New Zealand in 2006 but, according to biographer Bob Howitt, Whineray did not allow his name to be put forward.

Whineray is survived by wife Lady Elisabeth, one son, two daughters and five grandchildren.

"Our father led a rich life filled to the brim with family, sport, business and the community,'' his family said in a statement. "While he leaves a very big gap in our lives, we are blessed with many wonderful memories of him.

"We will always remember his energy and passion for everything he did, and we remember one of his favourite comments was that he didn't regret a single day in his life.''

Auckland Mayor Len Brown also paid tribute to Whineray.

"Sir Wilson was a great leader with outstanding business career, a wonderful kiwi,'' Mr Brown said.

"He not only led great All Black teams but one of the greatest Auckland teams. Sir Wilson was a true gentleman.''

Whineray was a member of the Mayor's first XV, a group of well known Aucklanders from all walks of life, who helped promote the Rugby World Cup in the lead-up to the event.