I never met Waka Nathan. I wish I had. Our paths sort of crossed on two occasions. I think he would have enjoyed them both.

For one year in the early 1970s Alison and I were living in a house called the Toll Cottage, close to the stone bridge that crosses the River Tweed, halfway between Melrose and Galashiels, under the Eildon Hills, in the Scottish Borders. I was working for Thomas Borthwicks in their meat plant in Galashiels and Alison was a secretary for Galashiels accountant James Rosie & Co..

It is a lovely part of the world. And made the more so by the warm hospitality we received every Saturday evening at Burt’s Hotel in Melrose. It is the sort of place you could forget to pay and go back on Sunday to settle the bill without any comment on your transgression.

Across the road from Burt’s Hotel was Melrose Abbey, the location of the burial place of Robert the Bruce’s heart. But a few metres down the road from the Abbey is the Melrose Rugby Park, a site I was told many times of far more significance in Scottish history than any buried remains. “Why,” do I hear you ask?

Well, in 1883 Melrose Rugby Club began the game called Rugby Sevens. The ladies of Melrose raised the funds for a small but stylish Ladies Cup which was to be presented to the best team. Melrose butchers apprentice, Ned Haig, accepted the trophy and it was never competed for again. It now sits proudly in a Sevens display cabinet in the Ned Haig lounge at Melrose RFC. I know that’s true because as a New Zealander working in a meat plant, I was taken by the owner of Burt’s Hotel to see this item of rugby history.

As I wandered around the lounge, I was taken to an item that clearly held pride of place in their rugby display. Yes, more so than the trophy that began the game of Sevens. In central position above all the championship medals and jerseys were the rugby boots worn by Waka Nathan when he played for the All Blacks against Scotland at Murrayfield on 18 January 1964. I swear my host had a tear in his eye as he told me he was there. He had seen the best that ever played the game. He had been given The Black Panther’s boots – clearly the boots of a rugby God.

Sometimes you can have great pride in the history and tradition of the sporting men and women that have represented this small country. Waka Nathan was most certainly one of those.

His name came up for a second time in my life, in 1977. Alison and I were at Brendon Foster’s Gateshead Track Meet in the north of England. Two other New Zealanders were at that meet, John Walker and his coach, Arch Jelley.

After the meet the tradition was to go off to the Gateshead Wheel Inn. Athletes and hangers-on would take turns at various cabaret acts. On this night a call came out for New Zealand’s turn. John, Arch and Alison had done more than their share at the meet. And so I felt some pressure to represent my country in a suitable performance.

I know you are not going to believe this but back in those days I was the owner of a pretty impressive Haka. I had been brought up in an all Māori school, Te Reinga, and had competed in what was then the East Coast Championships. And so, at three in the morning I stepped forward and threw myself into the best version of a Haka I could manage.

It must have been okay because I did notice Olympic Champions, world record holders, and world champion runners go strangely quiet as I called on as much pukana as a very pale pakeha could manage. The applause at the end was gratifying, probably because with the exception of Arch, John and Alison no one else in the Wheel Inn had any idea of what I was doing. But back then to be applauded by Brendan Foster and David Jenkins, and even John Walker and Arch Jelley was certainly great for my ego.

The next morning Alison and I were setting off to drive to our home in Windsor. By this time, I had been promoted from the meat plant in the Scottish Borders to Borthwick’s Head Office in St. John’s Lane, London EC1 – an address my daughter Jane also had when she first moved to the UK many years later. Alison had become a full-time runner and was competing for New Zealand.

Anyway, before we left Gateshead we went up to John and Arch’s room to say goodbye.

As we walked in John looked up and sleepily said to Arch, “Look who has arrived, Arch. It’s Chief Waka Nathan.”

You know what – that Haka must have been bloody good, to get that superlative from John Walker, now, of course, Sir John Walker.

Rest in peace, Chief Waka Nathan.  

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