Waka Nathan, Māori All Blacks and New Zealand rugby legend, stood tall in our community

By PJ (Phil) Taylor

This East Auckland area has been home to many of New Zealand’s finest sports people – Dame Yvette Corlett (nee Williams), Dame Valerie Adams, Dick Quax, Dame Barbara Kendall, Bruce Kendall, Richie Barnett, Ruben Wiki, Lance Revill, Roy Williams, Cameron Brown, Rex Sellers, to name a few, and Waka Nathan.

He carried great mana in our Howick community and was very down-to-earth and happy to see people and have a chat anytime.

A year after his death, that’s what you remember of Waka Nathan: the famous warm smile, the quietly-spoken, friendly greeting, a former All Black’s handshake – enveloping and firm, not crushing, and the ex-player’s old warrior walk that might still be feeling the bumps and bruises of the glory days. For Waka, there were plenty.

The try that cemented Waka Nathan’s place in Ranfurly Shield folklore, the last-gasp winner against Canterbury at a packed Eden Park in 1960. In the No. 8 jersey is a jubilant Wilson Whineray. Photo: Shield Fever/NZ Herald

We met on many occasions, usually official, such as at Rugby World Cup time and the annual pre-Eden Park test match luncheon at Pakuranga United Rugby Club, and sideline during the Auckland Rugby Union’s preseason club knockout competition, the Waka Nathan Challenge Cup.

Around the community in his retired years, you’d see him driving the burgundy Subaru wagon with the well-known Waka number plate, and wandering into the Prospect of Howick late Saturday arvo, maybe for a cleansing ale and light flutter.

Waka, no doubt, was a Māori All Blacks and ABs great. A genuine legend. Outstanding player, coach, manager, president, patron, life member. There’s not much more to achieve in our national game. Mentor to hundreds, inspirational to thousands.

At one of those PURC test lunches that always sell out and feature famous-name-player guest speakers, Waka was there with his former All Blacks mates, and great ones at that and former skippers – Colin “Pinetree” Meads and Ian “Kirky” Kirkpatrick.

The late Pinetree was, of course, one of the biggest names of our national game and equally as a rugby lunch guest speaker. There he was on stage, in footy blazer and jug of beer at arm’s length on the leaner, microphone modestly hovering around his chest, he’d tell the most absorbing rugby stories of yesteryear.

In the big-selling book, Colin Meads All Black (Collins, 1974), by Alex Veysey, Pinetree described Waka as “that most virile runner with ball in hand, great at exerting pressure close to the forwards”.

We rugby-centric kids who grew up at Eden Park in the 1970s knew Waka Nathan as a dead-set legend of the game and were envious of our dads and grandfathers who were able to see his whole playing career. He was the biggest name in Māori All Blacks rugby in his era, 1959 to 1967.

Acknowledging the home crowd fans as he heads towards the changing rooms after Auckland’s victory. Photo: Shield Fever

After standing out in schoolboy rugby for Otahuhu College, he went on to a spectacularly successful career with the Otahuhu club, winning Gallaher Shields alongside his great mates and fellow ABs, five-eighth Mac Herewini, three-quarter Fred McMullen and five-eighth Peter Murdoch; and Auckland loose-forward star of the 1960s, Lew Fell.

If ever a young aspiring talent on the rise had a bigger game to remember at the beginning of their career, Waka Nathan’s is hard to top.

The defining match was the classic Ranfurly Shield defence for Auckland against challengers Canterbury, at Eden Park in 1960. It was the last defence of the season, Canterbury lead 18-14 with only minutes left and had the feed to the last scrum near their goal-line.

In Bob Howitt’s popular book of 1975, New Zealand Rugby Greats (Moa): ‘Auckland’s pack produced a mighty shove, the ball teetered on Canterbury’s side and came back Auckland’s way.

‘[Halfback] Des Connor fired it to Mac Herewini who put in a wipers [wide-angled kick], a move well-known to the Auckland team – a probing kick designed to find the spaces between halfback and fullback.

‘This one worked perfectly. The first bounce beat winger John Morrissey, the second eluded fullback Fergie McCormick. Suddenly the ball was alive over the goal-line. It was appropriately Herewini’s Otahuhu and Māori mate Nathan who got to it first.’

Waka then explained: ‘It wasn’t the fact that we needed the converted try that made me run round towards the posts – just the fact that there wasn’t a player in sight. I think we stunned them.’

In Lindsay Knight’s masterclass book, Shield Fever (Rugby Press, 1980), Auckland’s Wilson Whineray is remembered for shouting ‘under the posts, Waka! Under the posts”, the husky 20-year-old bounded in that direction with the crowd of 30,000 in a ferment.’

Auckland fullback Mike Cormack ‘never looked like missing’ with the conversion from right out in front.

On the charge for the All Blacks in his test debut against Australia’s Wallabies at Brisbane in 1962, won 20-6 by NZ. Photos: Men in Black (Moa, 1978)

Nathan said in Shield Fever: ‘I felt terrible, just terrible. I didn’t know where to look or what to do. But [Auckland captain] Bob Graham came up to me and patted me on the stomach ‘it doesn’t matter, mate,’ he said. I felt better, but not much. When that last scrum packed down I knew it was our last chance and when the ball went loose and I got it I just knew where I had to go.’

When talking in 2010 with the late-great Fred “The Needle” Allen, the famous Auckland coach who would also become the most successful All Blacks coach, he chuckled when still obviously steamed up about it, saying he went straight up to Waka after the game and said ‘you left that a little late!’

Auckland had one of the most-famous Ranfurly Shield tenures from 1960-1963, after winning it from Southland 13-9 in the last match of 1959. Under Allen’s disciplined and exciting attack-minded coaching, the blue-and-whites defended the Log o’ Wood twice, lost it to North Auckland, then won it again in Whangarei two weeks later, and held it a then-record 25 defences into 1963, when Wellington took it off their hands.

Nathan had the distinction of never being in a losing All Blacks test side, with the 14 internationals he played flanker in between 1962 and 1967 all won. He scored four tries for 12 points.

He made his test debut for New Zealand against Australia at Brisbane in 1962, winning 20-6, and finished against the Wallabies in 1967 at Athletic Park in Wellington, an emphatic 29-9 victory, on the occasion of the NZ Rugby Union’s 75th jubilee.

Once described by a French journalist as the ‘Black Panther’ for the way he played energetically and pounced on opponents, Waka Nathan is airborne against France as the ball alludes him, flanked by All Blacks teammates, Kel Tremain (left) and Mac Herewini. NZ won this test against France 12-3 in Paris in 1964. Photo: NZ Rugby Greats/Morrie Hill, NZ Newspapers

In between, there were tours to the United Kingdom, Ireland and France with Whineray’s Men in 1963-64 and battling the 1966 British and Irish Lions at home, a series won 4-0.

All up, Waka wore the All Blacks’ jersey 37 times.

He represented NZ Māori in 17 appearances, and played 88 games for Auckland, with 51 points. After hanging up his playing boots, he continued to be a constant positive force in Aotearoa rugby at all levels, from coaching to management, and administration to life memberships, such was the respect he held.

He was an excellent coach who improved the quality of Māori rugby in the 1970s. As a schoolboy, I was in a capacity crowd at Eden Park on a Wednesday afternoon watching his Māori All Blacks push the 1977 British and Irish Lions close, losing 19-21, in a thriller which, if my memory serves me right, halfback Sid Going scored three tries playing alongside his brothers, first five-eighth Brian and fullback Ken, of North Auckland.

In New Zealand Rugby Greats, Nathan said: ‘I still see the Māori game as one of attack, with plenty of action, plenty of thrills.

‘I encourage the boys to do their thing, but I also stress that you can’t run wild unless you get the basics right.

‘In my day I got tired of coming off the paddock after a Māori match, getting patted on the back and being told ‘fantastic game’. It may have been, but we were always second.

‘Now, I’m trying to produce fantastic games, but with us first and them second.’

In 1982, he was the Māori All Blacks’ team manager on their historic tour of Wales.

At the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, Waka is also fondly remembered for being the rugby legend who did a lap of Eden Park to deliver the match ball to open the tournament.

In the amateur era that Nathan played in, he earned a living as a boner at Hellaby Freezing Works in Otahuhu until 1967, when he took up a promotions job at NZ Breweries, going on to be its senior promotions officer.

I met Waka through journalism and interviewed him for different publications. It was also a great pleasure to have him as our guest of honour, with wife Jan, at the Howick Sports Breakfast we held for East FM, when we were known as Howick Village Radio, about a decade ago at The Good Home/Prospect of Howick.

All Blacks on the rampage against the old enemy Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1963. With ball in hand is Colin Meads, supported by (from left) Alan Stewart, Wilson Whineray, Waka Nathan and Kel Tremain. Photo: Colin Meads All Black

A year ago, Aotearoa New Zealand lost a great man of rugby, and the Howick community lost a good friend and significant contributor. Sincere aroha to Waka Nathan’s whanau. He is greatly missed and always remembered fondly.

Waka Nathan, born in Auckland on July 8, 1940. Died in Howick on September 25, 2021. He attended Mangere Central Primary School and Otahuhu College.