Gifford: Whineray's heroes worth worshipping

ALL BLACKS GREAT: Wilson Whineray.
ALL BLACKS GREAT: Wilson Whineray.

Memory is a powerful drug, and during the week mine focused on a team I worshipped as a schoolboy, the 1963-64 All Blacks who toured Britain, Ireland, France, and Canada.

A terrific New Zealand photographer, Morrie Hill, published a glossy booklet after the tour, and in one shot pictured half a dozen of the players gathered around the plaque at Rugby School which commemorates William Webb Ellis who, "with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time", ran with the ball in his arms in 1823, which, if the legend is true, started the sport of rugby.

One of the All Blacks in that shot was Kevin Barry, a hero of mine when I was a kid. By melancholy coincidence, I learned of his passing on the same day I stood before the Webb Ellis plaque for the first time.

Heroes are tricky beasts. They can let you down with a thump that sickens you for days afterwards.

But Kevin never did. All Blacks were never thick on the ground in Thames Valley, but he was our man. He started playing senior rugby as a teenager in the Valley when his father, Ned, also an All Black, was a cop stationed at Whitianga.

In 1962 Kevin led a Valley team reduced to 14 men when wing Jim Mita broke his arm early in the game to a sensational two-point win over the Wallabies in Te Aroha.

He never played a test for the All Blacks, but started 23 games on tour, and he was good enough to once steal two lineout throws from Colin Meads when the Valley played King Country in Paeroa.

Strangely, after going for his third ball on a King Country throw, he was injured, and needed extensive bandaging to get back on the field. I think in those more primal times they called it a badge of honour.

After he'd retired from rugby, and was working in Auckland, I got to know him, and discovered what a modest, likeable, all round good bugger he was.

And here's the thing. Having been lucky enough to make a living in the media since 1965, I discovered something about that 1963-64 side: If there was ever a team that had a "no dickhead" policy this was it.

You could start with the coach, Neil McPhail. A former soldier, he was so modest he told reporters seeking quotes after a game, "Don't ask me, I wasn't out there. You need to talk to the players."

I doubt there's ever been a more astute man in our rugby than captain Wilson Whineray, later Sir Wilson. He was charming, too.

A few years before he died in 2012, I bumped into him at the Hard To Find Bookshop in Onehunga. In his hand was a copy of Terry McLean's book on the 63-64 tour, Willie Away, named after Whineray. There was a pregnant pause before he said, "This is not what it looks like."

Whenever he saw the book he bought a copy, he explained, and then, when grandchildren were old enough to wonder what Granddad had done in his youth, he could simply hand it over.

Whineray's All Blacks of 63 were a hell of a team.

They played 36 games, won 34, lost to Newport in their third match, and only lost out on a Grand Slam tour because Scotland held them to a scoreless draw.

But what the players offered to the sport, and to their country, in future years is even more extraordinary.

Four, Whineray, Brian Lochore, John Graham and Colin Meads, would be knighted.

Lochore coached the first All Blacks side to win the World Cup in 1987. Graham, for years the headmaster of Auckland Grammar, remains a passionate advocate for excellence in education. A young Polynesian friend met him this year and said, "He wasn't what I expected. I thought he'd be stern and cold, but he's got a terrific sense of humour."

And what would any story about this team be without a mention of possibly the sweetest natured man to ever pull on a rugby jersey, Waka Nathan?

In the 1970s, when Maori rugby had almost crashed and burned in the wake of some awful results, he took over as coach, and got the team back on its feet.

But don't think the sweet smile signalled a man you could push around. Terry McLean records that at the end of the tour he said to Nathan, "I've reached a point, Waka, where I think I might have to take that guitar you play all the time and stamp it into little pieces."

Replied Nathan, "Sure. And I might have to do the same to your typewriter."

Sunday Star Times