Remembering Waka Nathan: The All Blacks’ humble, gracious man of steel

Waka Nathan was the real life embodiment of the quiet, mild mannered Clark Kent sort of guy who turned into the man of steel. The only difference was that Nathan didn’t need a phone box, or to pull on bright coloured lycra.

Just put him in a jersey, pack him on the side of a scrum, and you pretty much had your own living, breathing, fire eating Superman.

To meet Waka Nathan was to love him. There’s never been a more gracious, humble, and likeable All Black. When he smiled it really was like the sun coming out.

During his All Black career, playing 14 tests, all victorious, from 1962 to 1967, the French called him “Le Panther Noir”, the black panther, and that was a pretty fair description of how he glided across the field at remarkable pace, leaving tattered opponents in his wake.

He was never dirty, but when he accelerated into a tackle he drove in with an upper body hardened by years of rugged work as a contract boner in an Otahuhu freezing works.

How much did he scare the opposition? Hell, sometimes he didn’t even have to touch them to spook them.

In the famous 1963 thrashing of the Barbarians by the All Blacks, Baabaas halfback Simon Clarke passed the ball to first-five, Richard Sharp.

Nathan was flying away from the scrum (under the rules then flankers could detach and follow the ball through the scrum) and he saw Sharp’s eyes lock on him, and Sharp’s mouth drop open.

The ball hit Sharp’s body, dropped to the ground, and Nathan dived on it for the try.

When the 1966 Lions toured New Zealand, All Black coach Fred Allen worked his way, as he was so good at, into Nathan’s mind.

“Waka, if you don’t tackle that [Lions first-five] Watkins,” he told Nathan, “you’ll be sitting in the stand beside me for the next test.” On one occasion, poor David Watkins was carried back 10 metres in a Nathan tackle, before he was slam dunked to the ground.

But what Waka enjoyed most of all, and was best at, was running with the ball. He had a smooth, long striding action, while managing to run with an unusually low centre of gravity.

The late Alby Pryor, an Auckland and New Zealand Māori teammate of Nathan’s once said to me “the hardest thing about trying to tackle Waka was that when he ran it was like his backside was only a foot off the ground. It cut down the target area to next to nothing.”

When Nathan retired as player he then galvanised Māori rugby off the field, as a coach, the way he had as a player.

He had watched with horror the Māori side lose two matches against Tonga in 1969, and heard increasing calls that it was time for Māori rugby to be discarded.

Just two years later, only 31 years old, he had the mana to take charge of the Māori team that played the 1971 Lions. In front of a midweek crowd of 48,000 people at Eden Park Nathan’s team announced that Māori rugby was back, holding the best Lions to ever tour New Zealand at 9-all at halftime, before succumbing, 23-12.

By the time his stint as Māori coach was over they’d beaten Tonga and Fiji, and the team’s future was secure.

“I see the Māori game,” he said, talking with author Bob Howitt about his coaching philosophy, “as one of attack, with plenty of thrills.”

He could have been talking about how he played the game himself.

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