There are great players of rugby, some of them renowned figures. Then come the legends and the man I went to see yesterday is certainly in the latter category.
Sir Wilson Whineray is generally regarded in this rugby-mad land as the greatest New Zealand rugby captain of all time. He is certainly the longest serving captain of the All Blacks. Whineray’s era was the 1950s to 1960s, a time when the game was always hard, sometimes brutal yet lifelong friendships were forged.
Whineray lives in a suburb of Auckland and we sat on the sun-soaked terrace of his apartment, with its sweeping views over to Auckland harbour, and talked for a couple of hours about life. It was fascinating.
I was there to interview him for a series of articles I’m writing. In the main, it wasn’t about rugby, but of course the favoured topic cropped up.
Wilson is now 76 and he suffers a bit from all those years of scrummaging as a prop. His back gives him pain and his knees wouldn’t be the best. Not that he ever complains about it. ‘Don’t suppose it’s going to get better in a hurry’ he said, dismissing the subject. That’s the man for you.
But there’s nothing wrong with Whineray’s intellect. It remains sharp. He doesn’t go to many games these days; prefers to watch them at home with his wife Beth and friends. But he reckons he knows where the All Blacks’ biggest challenge is coming from in this World Cup.
‘South Africa are strong, very strong’ he said. ‘They’re always the same; big, physical and a challenge. It’s true, I don’t go to many games these days but if we met the South Africans in the semi-final, now that’s a match I’d really like to see at close hand’.
Like all New Zealanders, Whineray has been charmed and delighted by the way his fellow countrymen have welcomed visitors and embraced the many visiting teams, whatever standards at which they perform.
He thinks it has been a significant achievement and a big plus point for the entire nation that all the people have turned out to attend matches, even involving sides generally described as ‘minnows’. It has made him proud to be a New Zealander to see such warmth and terrific hospitality.
Another great New Zealand rugby knight, Sir Colin Meads, echoed those sentiments. Meads admitted this morning in the ‘New Zealand Herald’ “I’ve changed my mind over the Cup.
“I’m one who said we would never be able to hold another World Cup. But now I’m sure we can. New Zealand has embraced the Cup like no other country ever has and we have enhanced everything. Right throughout New Zealand it has been tremendous.
“Everyone is saying it’s the best World Cup there has ever been – so why shouldn’t we have the World Cup again in years to come”?
Why not indeed? This is a real rugby nation and it has been a great place to hold the event. I don’t mind admitting, I thought it should have gone to Japan this time. But New Zealand has done a fantastic job and that’s chiefly because of the way the local people have taken to it and welcomed everyone.
It is superb to be here and enjoy that hospitality.