All Blacks great Waka Nathan passes away

Waka Nathan WEB v2

Waka Nathan, born July 8, 1940, died 24 September, 2021.Educated, Mangere Central Primary School, Otahuhu College. Test matches 14, total All Blacks appearances 37, debut v Central Western Districts, Bathurst, May 16, 1962, final game v Barbarians, Twickenham, December 16, 1967. All Black number 627, New Zealand Māori 17 games, Winner Tom French Cup (Māori player of the year) 1962, 1966. New Zealand Māori selector 1971-77, manager 1982. New Zealand Rugby Football Union council 1980-82. Auckland Rugby Union president 2003-04.


One of the greatest Māori players, Waka Nathan was an integral part of the All Blacks sides of the mid-1960s, and his contribution would possibly have been even greater than his 14 Tests had he not suffered dreadful bad luck on his two tours to Britain and France.


Having made his Test debut in Australia in 1962 in the 20-6 win at Brisbane, he retained his place for the second Test won 14-5, and the three Tests played later back in New Zealand 9-9 in Wellington, 3-0 in Dunedin and 16-8 in Auckland.


Then, after playing in both Tests against England in 1963, he was selected for the 1963-64 tour to Britain and France. He had an impressive start to the tour but was handicapped for six games when breaking a finger, ruling him out of the Ireland Test. But he recovered and was included in the side that beat Wales 6-0, the first Test win by the All Blacks on Cardiff Arms Park, but 10 days later he suffered a broken jaw in the 22-8 win over Llanelli.

Not diagnosed immediately, he was selected to play England but the pain was so bad he had to withdraw, opening the way for Brian Lochore to make his Test debut. When he was found to have broken his jaw he was told he would be out for six months.


Nathan related to Bob Howitt in NZ Rugby Greats that he was able to reduce the time he was out of action because he would adjust the time his jaw had been wired at each town they visited.


"I put a week on each time the question was asked and finally when he told a female doctor in Belfast that it had been on for six and a half weeks, she unwired me, convinced the jaw must be healed," he said. But it had only been three weeks.


He returned to the side after a month out to play three games in succession in France, including the 12-3 win in the Test over France, before featuring in the memorable 36-3 victory over the Barbarians to end the tour.


Injuries in 1964-65 meant he played no internationals in those seasons but he was back to play all four Tests in the unchanged pack that completed a 4-0 clean sweep of the British & Irish Lions in 1966.


He was part of the side that beat Australia 29-9 in the NZRFU's 75th Jubilee Test at Athletic Park, and headed back to Britain with Brian Lochore's great 1967 side. However, misfortune struck again when he suffered a second broken jaw against Midlands, London and Home Counties at Leicester. That denied him the chance to play any Tests on the tour and his international career ended in the dramatic 11-6 win over the Barbarians. Wallace Reyburn in The Unsmiling Giants said: "By the time the tour came to a close Nathan had been able to remind British fans that he was still the Black Panther, still one of the world's great loose forwards."

Nathan never played in a losing Test team and his only loss in his 37 games for the All Blacks was the 0-3 loss to Newport in 1963. Fred Allen said in Fred Allen on Rugby: "Waka Nathan was I think the most electrifying player of a tackled ball that I have seen…He had a cool head, good hands and the eye of a hawk. He was well balanced too; and when he reached a checked ball, most often at the point where two backs, a runner and a defender, had clashed, he had a genius for reaching down, gathering the ball and without wasting an instant setting off in his inimitable bucking style which took so much stopping."


Possibly one of the finest moments of his career was playing in a Ranfurly Shield match for Auckland against Canterbury in 1960. Three minutes were left in game with Canterbury, the challenger, leading 18-14.


Auckland won a vital tighthead and the ball was released to first five-eighths, and long-time Nathan team-mate, Mack Herewini. Auckland coach Fred Allen took up the story in Fred Allen on Rugby: "Herewini punted on to a sixpence somewhere about the goalline – a sixpence which was not occupied by any Canterbury defender. In hectic seconds, Canterbury men dived for the ball and missed it. Waka Nathan arrived and gathered it, crashing towards the line. Wilson Whineray, hard on Nathan's heels bellowed above the roar of the crowd and Nathan, hearing him, carried the ball behind the goalposts instead of scoring on the spot. Michael Cormack placed the goal and Auckland were home 19-18. All from one dramatic scrum."


After completing his playing career, Nathan remained committed to Māori rugby and was responsible for a renaissance in the game, taking a tour to Tonga and Fiji in 1973 while they also played internationals against the 1971 British & Irish Lions, the California Grizzlies in 1972 and going close to beating the 1977 Lions, losing 19-21. At the completion of his coaching career he had three years as a New Zealand Rugby Football Union councillor. He also managed the Māori All Blacks on their 1982 tour of Wales and Spain.


In 2018 Nathan’s immense contribution to rugby over 60 years was recognised at the annual ASB Rugby Awards when he was awarded the Steinlager Salver Award, NZR’s highest recognition for services to rugby.


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