Major teams: Canterbury, Waikato, Auckland
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1957-65
Test caps: 32 (32 starts)
Test points: 6 (2T)
Sir Wilson Whineray was that rugby rarity, a loosehead who had scrummaging maturity beyond his years.
The New Zealander’s star shone brightly from the day he made his Test debut against Australia in 1957, aged 21, and it never dimmed in a career that spanned nine years. The last eight of these, moreover, were as skipper in 30 Internationals – a world record for Test captaincy that lasted nearly 20 years until beaten by the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Rives.
In open play, Whineray showed a range of deft touches, the legacy of his earlier days in a variety of positions in and behind the scrum. He had soft hands, sold convincing dummies and was adept at the long-lost art of dribbling.
His awkward packing technique caused front-row opponents problems. The most highly acclaimed tighthead of the era was the Springbok Piet du Toit, and their battles in South Africa in 1960 were titanic. Though the All Blacks narrowly lost the series, the New Zealander was the only loosehead of his time to neutralise the havoc for which du Toit was famed.
Whineray’s captaincy style was autocratic, but New Zealand lost only five Tests while he was at the helm. The veteran critic Terry McLean unhesitatingly named him ‘New Zealand’s greatest captain’, while Colin Meads, an exact contemporary, spoke for a talented generation of All Blacks when he said, “As a captain he inspired fierce loyalty.” High praise indeed from one who might easily have had his own designs on the leadership.
Note, too, the day in 1964 when Whineray’s All Blacks skittled the Barbarians 36-3 in the traditional tour finale at Cardiff. As the skipper dummied and sidestepped to the posts to complete the try-scoring, an admiring full-house was roused to sing For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow. It was a fitting tribute to a great player and captain.