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.
Pongia played 35 Tests for the Kiwis 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 two decades later. He became regarded as one of New Zealand’s best-ever players and one of the great enforcers of the modern era.
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.
In 1988, 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.
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 Frank 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.’
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 in 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 Māori 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.
Canberra coach Tim Sheens had to go looking for engine-room reinforcements to return the Raiders premiership powerhouse status – and he found them ahead of the 1993 season in Pongia and Wellington hard-man John Lomax, who played together for New Zealand Māori 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 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.
Quentin Pongia #149, Forever Green
— Canberra Raiders (@RaidersCanberra) May 19, 2019
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 the 24-year-old Pongia provided the muscle against a highly-regarded Bulldogs pack fronted by Martin Bella and Darren Britt.
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.
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,” Kiwis coach Endacott reminisced in 2018.
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. He 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 said. “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.”
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.
After hanging up the boots, Pongia had roles as strength and conditioning coach and then as an NRL assistant coach at the Raiders. He also served as a wellbeing officer at Manly in 2017.
The rugby league world mourned the loss of ‘Q’, who passed away after a brave battle with bowel cancer, in 2019. He was just 48.
NEW ZEALAND (1992-2000)
35 Tests – 2 tries (8 points)
8 tour matches – 0 points
-1993 Kiwis tour of Britain and France
-1995 Kiwis World Cup squad
-1998 Kiwis tour of Britain
-1999 Kiwis Tri-Nations squad
-2000 Kiwis World Cup squad