The man who saved the Māori All Blacks has died

One of the bravest All Blacks of all time, and the man who saved the Māori All Blacks, Waka Nathan Ngapuhi, Te Roroa, Tainui) has died at 81.

In the first of tributes paid to him today, Auckland Rugby said Nathan’s legacy would “forever be etched into the history of our union.

“Kua hinga te tōtara i Te Waonui a Tāne - A tōtara has fallen in the great forest of Tāne.”

Rugby writer Phil Gifford earlier this year called him the most influential man in Māori rugby of all time.

“As a great All Black flanker in the 1960s, the French called him Le Panther Noir, the Aussies Whacker, and he is possibly the most humble, generous-spirited man to ever wear the All Black jersey,” Gifford wrote

Just four years after he retired as an All Black, still only 30 years old, he took over the coaching of the New Zealand Māori side when many were calling for an end to the team.

Man of the hour

“Māori rugby desperately needed a man with his mana and skills,” Gifford wrote. “In 1969 a nadir was hit when two tests with Tonga were lost, and several leading players made themselves unavailable for further selection for the Māori team.”

But Nathan was determined and went on to become a New Zealand Māori selector between1971-77 and managed the New Zealand Māori on their tour of Wales in 1982.

That hard mahi was recognised when Waka was given the honour from New Zealand Rugby to run onto the field and start the proceedings for the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.

After a distinguished rugby and administration career the long-retired Nathan came to the public eye again when he came forward as one of a group of former players who had suffered hard knocks in their rugby careers and now had dementia, which they believed was the result of brain inuries suffered during their playing careers.

Bravely revealed condition

He was 75 in 2016 when he revealed he had Alzheimer’s.

"I looked at guys like Colin Meads and Stan Meads. If they were hurt they just carried on playing, so I just thought I should too," Nathan said of the hard knocks he took.

He was born in Auckland and was educated in Otahuhu College and was a member of the school's first fifteen. He played for Auckland domestically, for whom he made 88 appearances and scored 51 points.

Waka is well remembered for scoring a last-minute try against Canterbury to set up his teammate, Mike Cormack to convert the try and retain the Ranfurly Shield in a game that finished 19-18 in 1960.

Auckland Rugby today proudly proclaimed Nathan “was a man of incredible mana who devoted a large part of his life to Auckland Rugby.”

Auckland leader

Waka was a former president of the Auckland Rugby Union, patron of the Auckland Rugby Board and an Auckland Rugby Life Member. He was an Otahuhu College old boy and life member of the Otahuhu Rugby Club.

Waka was honoured by Auckland Rugby for his commitment and devotion to the union as a player and administrator with the creation of the Waka Nathan Challenge Cup which Auckland Rugby’s premier club teams compete for.

Later he was made a life member of the New Zealand Maori Rugby Board in recognition of the exceptional services he rendered to Maori rugby.

“Waka’s record speaks for itself and he holds a special place in Maori rugby folklore for both his deeds on the field and his personality and contribution off it,” board chair Dr Farah Palmer said then.

Waka debuted for the All Blacks in 1962 on a tour of Australia where he played both tests against the Wallabies. He was a member of the All Blacks tour of Britain in 1963-64 and, despite having a broken jaw, he scored 11 tries in 15 matches.

The world-class flanker played 14 tests for the All Blacks with 14 wins in the black jersey. The late Sir Colin Meads described Waka as “the most virile runner with the ball in hand”.

'The most virile runner'

Waka went on to debut for the New Zealand Māori in the same year appearing for the team until 1966. He first played for the New Zealand Māori and then the All Blacks from 1962 to 1967, as a breakaway. During his All Blacks career, he was on tour to Australia, the British Isles and France. Despite having a broken jaw, he scored 11 tries in 15 matches.

Nathan was a key part of coach Fred Allen's unbeaten All Black teams of the late-60s and was a bashed-up tourist on the 1967 tour to Canada, the UK and France, where they were hit by a foot-and-mouth outbreak - which prevented them going to Ireland - and from winning a grand slam.

The world-class flanker played 14 tests for the All Blacks with 14 wins in the black jersey. The late Sir Colin Meads described Waka as “the most virile runner with the ball in hand”.

Waka Nathan is survived by his whanau including his wife Janis, three daughters and seven grandchildren.