Sir Wilson Whineray was a model of the NZ character.

Few New Zealanders bear comparison with Sir Edmund Hillary for their place in their country's regard but Sir Wilson Whineray is one of them. Both were models of the national character, Hillary for his modesty in high achievement, Whineray for his leadership. He was a leader beyond rugby but, as so often in New Zealand life, it was rugby that let the public see the national character at its best.

There were fine All Black captains before Wilson Whineray but none finer. He led teams that included great players such as Don Clarke, Colin Meads, Kel Tremain, Waka Nathan, Ken Gray. As a player he could hold his own in that company but it was as a captain that he earned the highest regard of his players, his opponents, of rugby followers in New Zealand and everywhere he went.

Since his death on Monday, many have recalled the sparkling finale to the All Blacks' northern tour of 1963-64 when Whineray ran with the ball, threw a dummy pass and scored a try against the Barbarians at Cardiff. But only those old enough to remember it know why that moment was celebrated. It was not typical of rugby at that time, especially for prop forwards. Whineray spent his career in the tight, muscling, driving and mauling largely unseen in that pre-television age.

Like most natural leaders, he commanded respect for what he was rather than for anything in particular that he said or did. He inspired admiration and confidence because he simply did the right thing on the field and off. Somehow, despite playing in the front row he was never involved in flare-ups, calmly made the right calls, kept his teams composed and led them to victory 23 times out of 30. Off the field, he was a reliable ambassador, well-mannered, intelligent and good-natured.


His leadership qualities must have been evident very early. He became All Black captain in just his third test, aged 23. He would have been as content not to be chosen, and played happily in the great Auckland Ranfurly Shield team of the early 1960s under the captaincy of Bob Graham. But the All Black captaincy was his for as long as he wanted it, and he set the mould.

When he retired after eight years, a new young leader of similar quality was found in Brian Lochore. Sir Brian readily acknowledges the example he drew from Whineray. So would the captains who followed Lochore - Ian Kirkpatrick and Graham Mourie - and through them, something of the Whineray style has been transmitted to later leaders, especially the incumbent, Richie McCaw.

Sir Wilson's qualities were readily transferred to business, at the helm of Carter Holt Harvey and later the boards of other companies, including the owners of the New Zealand Herald for a period. But regrettably he could not be enticed to public life. In that respect, too, he has set the pattern. Leadership esteemed on the rugby field has not yet been transferred to government.

Perhaps it is just as well. A nation needs people such as Sir Edmund and Sir Wilson to idealise, not to subject to the arguments and criticism of political contests. Great All Black captains have their own lasting value.

On the weekend of the Rugby World Cup final, exactly a year before his death, Sir Wilson wrote on our front page. "Win or lose, we will be humble and gracious, no matter what happens," he said. "Fortunately, winning is never forever, neither is defeat."

Great leaders remind us what matters. Sir Wilson Whineray was our greatest.