Farewell Black Panther

Waka Nathan was sometimes referred to as the Black Panther which originated in a French newspaper which called him La Panthere Noire after the All Blacks played France in 1963. The paper’s rugby reporter was said to be in awe of how Nathan could stalk the opposition like a panther.
  • By award-winning sports writer Ivan Agnew

Black Panther Waka Nathan ended a long battle with dementia, dying peacefully before his family at Dannemora’s Bruce McLaren Retirement Village on Friday. He was 81.

He leaves behind his wife Janis, daughters Alana, Claudine and Janine and his grandchildren who faithfully visited him weekly during his long illness.

He played for Otahuhu, Auckland, NZ Maori and 37 games for the All Blacks. He was unbeaten in 14 tests after making his debut in 1962.

A fierce openside flanker on the field, gifted with speed, style and a crunching tackle, Nathan was a gracious man off it. To know him was to love him.

Nathan played 88 games for Auckland, many of them under champion coach Fred Allen. He was best remembered for the match-winning last gasp try that allowed Auckland to retain the Ranfurly Shield in the 19-18 Eden Park thriller after Buddy Henderson slotted with six penalties for Canterbury in 1960.

Not surprisingly the kick that set it up was made by his great friend Mac Herewini. It remains one of my cherished memories that Waka, his father Sam and Mac drove me to my first game in Auckland when I moved from The Christchurch Star in 1971. Like his son, Sam was also very much a man of mana.

Waka scored a remarkable 11 tries on the All Blacks 1964-65 tour of Great Britain where he broke his jaw. His jaw was also broken on the 1967 northern tour when he became a mentor to a young Ian Kirkpatrick.

“Waka had mana because he was such a great player, yet he was very shy and humble,” said All Black teammate Billy Bush.

Nathan received the Steinlager Slaver for his service to rugby that spanned six decades as a player, coach, selector and administrator. That mainly embraced NZ Maori teams and he was twice winner of the Tom French Cup as Maori Player of the Year.

He was also a life member of the NZ Maori Rugby Board from 1982 and a president and patron of the Auckland Rugby Union.

Another special moment was being chosen to run around the Eden Park field to celebrate the start of the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 which the All Blacks duly won.

Waka and his wife Janis have spent much of the past 30 years around Howick with daughters Alana, Claudine and Janine having attended Macleans College where Claudine was head girl.