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CRL LEGEND SERIES NO.7: QUENTIN PONGIA

CRL LEGEND SERIES NO.7: QUENTIN PONGIA

The rugby league world is mourning the loss of Quentin Pongia, who passed away on Saturday after a brave battle with bowel cancer. He was just 48. Originally from the West Coast, before embarking on a career that saw him become a revered and popular figure in Canterbury, for professional clubs Canberra, the Warriors, Sydney Roosters, St George Illawarra and Wigan, and in 35 Tests for the Kiwis, Pongia is genuine modern great of the game. The latest instalment of CRL’s Legend Series pays tribute to the dearly missed ‘Q’.

The outpouring of emotional tributes for Quentin Pongia from every corner of the rugby league world in recent days have featured several common threads.

As a player, he is described as an uncompromising, durable, fearless competitor. But, above all, tough – one of the toughest of his era.

“I was fortunate enough to coach some of the toughest players to ever play the game, and the one that stands out is Quentin Pongia, above (them) all,” Frank Endacott says.

“If you talk to the tough guys that played the game – Jarrod McCracken, John Lomax, Ruben Wiki, Stephen Kearney – I guarantee they’ll tell you that he was the hardest player that they ever played with.”

The tragedy of Pongia’s passing on Saturday, aged just 48, of course is that so many have lost a beloved friend and family member. ‘Q’ is universally remembered as a great bloke. Warm with a heart of gold. Someone who lived life with the same enthusiasm he took onto the football field for Suburbs in Greymouth, Riccarton, Linwood, Canterbury, New Zealand, Canberra, the Warriors, Sydney Roosters, Villeneuve, St George Illawarra and Wigan.

 

COAST TO COAST

Born in Greymouth in 1970, Quentin Pongia came from excellent rugby league stock. His grandfather, Jim Calder, played eight Tests in the pack for New Zealand from 1930-36.

After making his senior club debut as a raw 17-year-old in the Greymouth competition, Pongia followed an increasingly well-worn path of West Coast footballers to Christchurch to further his prospects. Pongia landed at Riccarton.

“Darryl Hawker, who coached Riccarton, rang me and said I’ve got a player who’s come over from the West Coast,” Endacott recalls.

“(We had) the Junior Kiwis coming up – I was a selector at the time – playing Australia. I thought I’d go down and have a look at him, I thought he might be a bit young. It took me about 15 minutes to make a phone call to (Junior Kiwis coach) Bob Bailey, and I said, ‘we’ve got a player here you’ve got to come down and have a look at’.

“He said he hadn’t heard of him. I said you won’t (have) – but you will shortly. This bloke’s a special, you need to come down and have a look at him.

“So I twisted Bob’s arm, he hopped on a plane and it took about the same amount of time for him. He watched about 20 minutes and said, ‘he’s in’. We could see at that early age he was going to be something special and he was going to make it.”

The year was 1988, and Pongia lined up in the second-row for the Junior Kiwis alongside the likes of McCracken, Jason Lowrie, Hitro Okesene and fellow Coast product (and future Canterbury teammate) Whetu Taewa. Their Australian Schoolboys opposition included Brad Fittler, Tim Brasher and David Fairleigh.

“That particular year I was a guest speaker for the Riccarton end-of-year dinner,” Endacott continues.

“At the end (of my speech) I said, ‘there’s a young man in this room right now’ – and I’d only met him to say hello, but I’d seen him play a couple of matches – ‘that I believe will go on to play for his country and play in the [Australian premiership]’. I didn’t mention his name, but I had a number of people come up to me and ask who I was talking about; I said, ‘that bloke over there’. And sure enough Quentin went right through to the top.”

A Kiwi Colts call-up for the clash with Great Britain in 1990 and an appearance for a President’s XIII against France in 1991 followed. Pongia, who had transferred to Linwood, also made his debut for Endacott-coached Canterbury in ’91, playing all six matches of his adopted province’s schedule that season – including a memorable win over Auckland to break a 16-year drought.

John Coffey said of the 21-year-old in the Lion Red Annual’s ‘Promise In Store’ section: ‘Even now there are few tougher second-rowers in New Zealand; higher honours are seemingly inevitable.’

 

THE BLACK AND WHITE JERSEY

Endacott’s and Coffey’s predictions for the tyro forward took little time to come to fruition.

Pongia was one of seven Test debutants – a group that included future Canberra teammate Sean Hoppe and fellow Canterbury-via-West Coast enforcer Brent Stuart – chosen in incoming coach Howie Tamati’s first Kiwis squad.

Quentin Pongia with Canterbury and New Zealand teammate Brent Stuart (1992)

Still three days shy of his 22nd birthday, he partnered Gavin Hill in the second-row as New Zealand dismantled Papua New Guinea 66-10 at Mount Smart Stadium and held his spot for the thrilling two-Test series against Great Britain, which finished one win apiece.

Pongia also received the opportunity to take the field back in Greymouth, featuring in a Kiwis-laden New Zealand Maori side that trounced Southern XIII 66-0. An uncle presented him with the Kiwis cap given to his grandfather more than 60 years earlier; it had been Jim Calder’s wish that the cap be handed down to the first family member that replicated his achievement of playing rugby league for New Zealand.

Pongia went on to play 35 Tests from 1992-2000 – a tally behind only Gary Freeman, Stephen Kearney, Jock Butterfield and Dane O’Hara at the time of his last appearance, and still equal-13th in Kiwis history almost two decades later.

Two World Cup campaigns, memorable triumphs over Australia and a historic series victory in Britain as captain would render Pongia’s Kiwis tenure one of the greatest ever.

 

CAPITAL PUNISHER

The Canberra Raiders were the glamour team of the late-1980s and early-1990s, qualifying for three straight grand finals. But a salary cap scandal threatened the club’s very existence. While the star-studded nucleus of Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Bradley Clyde and Steve Walters remained, the heart of their forward pack – namely, front-rowers Glenn Lazarus and Brent Todd – was ripped out and the Raiders plummeted to a 12th-place finish in 1992.

Coach Tim Sheens had to go looking for engine-room reinforcements if the Raiders were to return to the premiership penthouse – and he found them ahead of the 1993 season in Pongia and Wellington hard-man John Lomax, who played together for New Zealand Maori a year earlier.

“I brought (Pongia) and Lomax to our first training session for 1993 and they just started belting blokes,” Sheens recalled to Wide World of Sports in recent days.

“I’ll never forget the look on Laurie Daley’s face. He couldn’t believe how hard as nails they were for new blokes. He looked at me and said, ‘Bloody hell – where did you find these two guys?’”

“(Pongia) saved us. We lost guys like Glenn Lazarus up front and could have really struggled. But from day one, ‘Q’ was a colossus. He was so competitive on the field that he gave us that hard edge again and a year later, he was in the team that won the grand final.

“Those guys were like brothers and we are all hurting now.”

Pongia and Lomax were widely hailed among 1993’s buys of the year, cementing first-grade starting spots and helping Canberra to a top-three finish.

But Pongia also endured his first run-in with the judiciary that season, cited for a high tackle against North Sydney and suspended for four matches. Brandishing a ferocious, take-no-prisoners style, Pongia was not a malicious or violent player, but sailing close to the wind is an constant hazard when hurting opponents is your stock-in-trade. Pongia’s career in Australia was frequently interrupted by enforced ‘holidays’.

After playing in the drawn first Test against Australia, injury kept Pongia out of the remaining encounters with the world champions. But he was one of only five players to feature in all five Tests against Wales, Great Britain and France on the Kiwis’ troubled end-of-season tour that ultimately saw Tamati replaced as national coach by Endacott.

Pongia’s mid-season injury absence in 1994 underlined his importance to the Raiders. At one stage the club won 13 straight games when he played but lost three of the five games he missed. Sheens also permanently moved Pongia – who was still listed under the 100kg mark – into the front-row alongside Lomax.

When Lomax was sent off in the preliminary final defeat of the Bears and subsequently rubbed out of the grand final, the onus was on Pongia to lead from the front. Lomax’s replacement, ball-playing journeyman Paul Osborne, stole the headlines by laying on two first-half tries in the Raiders’ 36-12 demolition in the decider, but Pongia provided the muscle against a highly-regarded Bulldogs pack fronted by Martin Bella and Darren Britt.

Canberra’s 1994 line-up is rightly acclaimed as one of the great club combinations – but few deserved a premiership winner’s medal more than the 24-year-old Greymouth product.

A broken elbow in a warm-up match in Cairns ruled Pongia out of the Endacott-coached Kiwis’ tour of Papua New Guinea at the end of 1994. He recovered in time for the beginning of Canberra’s title defence but injury and suspension restricted him to just 12 games for the Raiders in 1995, crucially missing their shock preliminary final exit at the hands of the Bulldogs.

The 1996 season represented the nadir of Pongia’s relationship with the judiciary panel. He was sent off for a high tackle and suspended for six weeks in April. Then in his third game back, he copped another six-week ban for head-butting. Pongia played only 10 games for a Raiders side that could ill-afford key absentees after losing Stuart and Clyde to season-ending knee injuries early in the campaign.

But despite his frustrations in back-to-back seasons for the Raiders, Pongia was a mainstay for the Kiwis, playing all 13 Tests in 1995-96. Another four-week suspension halted his early-1997 momentum for the Raiders but he played both Tests against Super League Australia – including the rousing 30-12 post-season win at North Harbour Stadium, in which Pongia and Lomax dominated opposing props Jason Stevens, Brad Thorn and Shane Webcke.

Pongia’s five-season tenure in the A.C.T. finished at the end of 1997, when he signed a deal to again reunite with Endacott at the Auckland Warriors. Stuart echoed the thoughts of many of Pongia’s former Canberra teammates on Saturday.

“Like a number of players who played with him, I have nothing but respect and a wonderful friendship with Quentin,” he said.

“Although it saddens me to hear of the news, it comforts me to know he has no pain now.

“Quentin is the toughest individual I have ever played with and I know how hard he fought to beat this terrible disease. He will be sorely missed right across the rugby league community.

“He was an icon of the game, a great bloke and a fearless player. He had a huge identity in the game during his playing career and it’s just really tragic to see cancer take another great man way too early.”

 

ONCE A WARRIOR

Pongia was one of the most reliable performers in a Warriors pack desperately in need of stiffening up in 1998. A controversial four-match striking suspension emanating from just his second outing for the club was another exasperating setback, but his return from more than a month on the sidelines would be one of his finest hours.

Pongia was one of New Zealand’s best in a famous 22-16 boilover against the first full-strength Australian side in four years, playing the entire 80 minutes after Lomax was carted off to hospital in the opening seconds. Pongia’s heroic performance is generally regarded as his best in a Kiwis jumper.

“Looking at guys like Quentin Pongia and Terry Hermansson after the game, absolutely drained of energy, they put everything into it,” Endacott reminisced last year.

“That’s all you can ask for in the Kiwi jersey. You can never ask for the result, but you can ask them to give their best and they did that. To see that dressing room after the game, there was blood all around the place – it was like a slaughterhouse – but they gave their blood, their energy for the jersey, and it was the proudest I’ve ever been as a Kiwi coach.”

The Warriors ownership upheaval in late-1998 that saw Endacott depart the club and would also prompt Pongia to join Sydney City unfolded, quite unhelpfully, during the Kiwis’ post-season campaign.

With Matthew Ridge ruled out injured, Pongia captained New Zealand for the first time in a 36-16 loss to Australia in Auckland. But within a month the powerful prop had created history as the first Kiwis skipper to helm an undefeated Test series campaign in Britain, leading his country to wins in the first two matches and a draw in the third. It was also the Kiwis’ first series win in Britain of any description since 1971.

Pongia was named NZRL’s Player of the Year for 1998.

Pongia’s enforcer status tended to overshadow the finesse in his game. Mobility, skill and subtlety – as well as having a huge engine – made him a more well-rounded forward than most gave him credit for, though his teammates never had any doubts about his value.

“The thing that sticks out to me if the way his teammates looked up to him,” Endacott says.

“He was a man of few words, but when he spoke everyone listened. You could always tell he was on for every game and he used to inspire the young players.

“Stacey Jones text me the other day and said, ‘Frank, he was the guy in the team that I always looked up to’. He would always lead us into the hard stuff.”

 

RESTLESS SOUL

Under Phil Gould’s coaching at the heavyweight Roosters, Pongia played a career-high 21 games in 1999. But injuries ruled the incumbent Kiwis captain out of the Anzac Test and the post-season Tri-Nations campaign.

Pongia’s tackling technique came under scrutiny again early in 2000, rubbed up for seven weeks for a high shot on Sharks forward Tim Maddison. A snapped arm tendon in his return outing sidelined him for the rest of the NRL season – and denied him a grand final appearance – but the 30-year-old recovered to play in five of New Zealand’s six matches at the year-end World Cup.

The brave loss to Australia in the final would be Pongia’s international swansong.

Pongia played 19 games for the Roosters in 2001 but his time at the club ended prematurely via a late-season high-tackle suspension.

A subsequent deal with the London Broncos falling through and a short-lived captain-coach stint with Paris club Châtillon led to one of the brightest – if lower-profile – chapters of his career, leading Villeneuve to French Cup glory in the 2002-03 season.

Refreshed from his time in the south of France but his competitive fire still burning, Pongia returned to Australia on short-term deal with St George Illawarra midway through 2003. But after just two games for the Dragons he was enticed back to the Northern Hemisphere by Wigan.

Pongia was part of Wigan’s drive to that year’s grand final, forming a bruising front-row combination with former Kiwis teammate Craig Smith. The Warriors went down to Bradford – who boasted another former comrade, Joe Vagana, as their star prop import – in the decider.

Pongia’s last game came less than two months before his 34th birthday and in front of more than 73,000 fans at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, playing in Wigan’s 2004 Challenge Cup final defeat at the hands of St Helens before announcing his mid-season retirement.

 

A CHAMPION UNTIL THE END

Pongia eventually returned to Canberra as a strength and conditioning coach, then as an NRL assistant to 1994 premiership teammate David Furner.

Unsurprisingly, he made a big impression on the Raiders’ young forwards, in particular.

In Michael Burgess’ obituary for NZ Herald, a great yarn is recounted about Pongia helping out during Stephen Kearney’s Kiwis’ 2014 Four Nations preparations – and rattling a few cages with his trademark physicality.

“The way [Quentin] whacked Kieran Foran, I was getting a bit worried,” Kearney said at the time. “But they gave us some extra numbers in an opposed session and the guys loved having them around.”

Pongia took on a role with the Manly Sea Eagles as a wellbeing officer in 2017. But last year the gravity of his fight against bowel cancer became public. A blindsided rugby league fraternity rallied to support a man most took for granted as invincible.

Returning to Christchurch for Manly’s clash with the Warriors in March this year, Pongia told Stuff: “I’m not the greatest”.

“But there’s a lot of life lessons there to be learnt. I’ve had a lot of hardship but there’s gold linings there.

“I can sit there and feel sorry for myself and go and lock myself in the room, but that’s not going to do any good for me.

“I have to get out and make the most of what I’ve got … and let friends and family into my life, and stop trying to be this hard exterior that we’ve been brought up [to be], and not show any emotions.”

Pongia was the guest of honour at a dinner put on by Walco Events two days before the game – with a bevy of former teammates jetting in from all parts to get around ‘Q’.

Close friend Sir Peter Leitch interviewed Pongia on-stage. You could hear a pin drop among the captivated crowd…in between the laughs and the tears. Given Pongia’s humility, humour and motivation to keep fighting, it seemed incongruous that this mighty tōtara of New Zealand rugby league could fall to an insidious disease less than two months later.

“Quentin was like part of our family, he was that close,” Endacott says.

“He stayed at home with us for five days and the ‘dos’ that were put on for him, a lot of his old teammates came over from Australia – Sean Hoppe, Jarrod McCracken, Matthew Ridge came down. A lot from Auckland. We had a fantastic weekend and they’re the good things you remember.”

A great player, a treasured mate, a Kiwi legend.

RIP, ‘Q’.

 

QUENTIN PONGIA

b.July 8, 1970 in Greymouth  d.May 18, 2019 in Greymouth

-Suburbs (Greymouth), Riccarton, Linwood
-Junior Kiwis (1988), Kiwi Colts (1990), President’s XIII (1991), Kiwis Trial (1992), New Zealand Maori (1992)

-Canterbury (1991-92): 12 matches – 2 tries (8 points)
-New Zealand (1992-2000): 35 Tests – 2 tries (8 points) (plus 8 tour games in 1993-94 – 0 points)

-Canberra Raiders (1993-97): 74 games – 3 tries (12 points)
-Auckland Warriors (1998): 18 games – 0 points
-Sydney Roosters (1999-2001): 43 games – 3 tries (12 points)
-Chaitillon (2002)
-Villeneuve (2002-03)
-St George Illawarra Dragons (2003): 2 games – 0 points
-Wigan (2003-04): 30 games – 0 points

 

A luncheon in Auckland on June 7, organised by Leitch to support Pongia’s cause, will still go ahead. Proceeds from the event will go to Pongia’s two-year-old daughter, Maia. For more information and to book tickets, go to www.eventcentre.ellerslie.co.nz/quentinlunch 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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