Nathan, white shirt, training during a tour of Great Britain in which he broke his jaw for a second time [GALLO/GETTY]
Waka Nathan’s life as an All Black could hardly be more different than that of the 15 men who will run out at Eden Park to face France in the Rugby World Cup final on Sunday. His debut tour for the New Zealand Maori in his late teens earned him enough fame to be given a job driving a bulldozer on the building site of what is now Auckland International Airport. When he was selected for the All Blacks in 1962, he was working in a slaughterhouse, butchering cow, sheep and pig carcasses, before securing a job in a brewery. That work was put on hold for long tours to Britain, in which he twice broke his jaw but lied about his recovery to continue playing. He played 14 Test matches in an era when full internationals were few and far between, and was never on the losing side. He was a superstar in a team of superstars, at a time when few Maori featured for the All Blacks. Dubbed “the Black Panther” for his ferocious tackling and low sprinting style with the ball, the flanker’s career ended nearly 20 years before the first World Cup was held in 1987, and long before a staunchly amateur sport became professional.
“I said that as Maori we should consider ourselves lucky, because we have a Maori team and a national team. But I believe that, if you are going to be a country, then you play for a country” Waka Nathan, former All Black
Now 71, he is hoping to see a modern All Blacks team win a second Webb Ellis Cup, ending 24 years without victory on the biggest stage – and is praying that the French do not pull off a surprise victory. “Everyone would be absolutely shattered, I’d say,” Nathan said on Thursday at his home in east Auckland. “It’s four years apart and then to get to the final and lose I’d say it’s the same for the French but for us, it’s being held in our country and it would just be wonderful to win the game. “The other thing is that it will probably be the last time we ever have the World Cup here. For a small country like ours to try and run it, it’s just too costly. In fact, I think it is the last time we’ll ever have it. “Sunday, I have still got my fingers crossed. The boys have played well, but wait until the final whistle. Then I’ll be happy.” In some ways, Nathan is what you would expect of an All Blacks legend who played alongside names like Colin Meads, Brian Lochore and Wilson Whineray.
He takes enormous pride in having worn the shirt, is modest about his own achievements, and lights up any time that he talks about the tours he went on or about the players who wear the shirt now. But in other ways, someone whom you might expect to hold on firmly to the almost mythological status of rugby in New Zealand is bluntly realistic about whether the World Cup means more to Kiwis than it does to anyone else.
“Not really. I don’t believe it does,” he said. “I have toured Britain and Australia, and the Pacific Islands, and France and so forth, and they love rugby for the same reasons as our country. Firstly you’re playing for your country, and secondly it’s a great sport.” He is also proud to have represented New Zealand Maori, but does not believe that it is the highest honour for a Maori player. “When I retired from rugby I thought I’d love to be the Maori coach, and for six or seven years I did that, but I always told the Maori team that there’s nothing better than playing for the All Blacks,” he said “I said that as Maori we should consider ourselves lucky, because we have a Maori team and a national team.
But I believe that, if you are going to be a country, then you play for a country.” And not, necessarily, your own. Another surprising answer comes with the question of whether, if he’d stayed in England after one of his tours, he would have been persuaded to swap the black shirt for a white one, as a couple of Kiwis and one Pacific Islander did ahead of this World Cup. “Too bloody right I would,” he says, without hesitation.
“Especially now, with all the money about.” These days, the All Blacks can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year each – and even that doesn’t touch some European salaries. “It’s their livelihood. Like any sport if you are paid to play it becomes your job. Whereas ours, we got 10 shillings a day and it didn’t become our job,” Nathan said.
“I was 17 or 18 and was queuing up to work on the new airport. The foreman called me over and said, ‘What’s your name, don’t you play rugby? What are you doing here?’. I told him and he said, ‘Can you drive a bully? (bulldozer)’. I said no problem, even though I didn’t know how to start the thing. “My cousin took me up and down the new landing strip on it four times and then I was on my own. So next time you land at Auckland, you can say, ‘Old Wak did this bloody strip.'” The All Blacks tours that followed may have paid less than Nathan earned atop his bulldozer, but being in Britain wasn’t without its perks. “If I’d never been an All Black I would never have met the Queen, Prince Philip and the kids at Buckingham Palace in 1963, or gone to Clarence House and met the Queen Mother,” he said. “They may be professional now but I tell you what, they’ll never keep that away from me. But I never kept a photo – bloody hopeless.”
That 1963 tour also saw Nathan break his jaw against Llanelli, leading to the flanker having to force his way back into the team in a medically unconventional manner. “The first tour I was on I broke my jaw, but we played 36 games and were there for four and a half months so the coach said I was to stay on,” he recalled. “Each stop on the tour, a new doctor would see me and put my return back another week. When you’re not playing you have to do all the dirty work for the guys, so the next time I went to the doctor I said I broke it three weeks ago when it was only one and a half. “The first doctor had said I’d be out for six weeks, but I was back playing after three. “No wonder I broke it again.”