The outpouring of emotional tributes for Quentin Pongia from every corner of the rugby league world following his death, aged just 48, featured several common threads. As a player, he was widely described as an uncompromising, durable, fearless competitor. But, above all, tough – one of the toughest of his era. Off the field, warm with a heart of gold and universally respected.


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.


“As tough a forward as any that played for the Kiwis, I’m sure of that – and it’s not surprising when you look at his background as the grandson of Jim Calder, who was a legend on the West Coast and a Kiwi in the 1930s,” acclaims veteran rugby league journalist, author and historian John Coffey.


“He was in the mould of guys like (1960s Kiwi Test props) Maunga Emery and Sam Edwards, surging forward without a backwards step.”


Born in Greymouth where he first played senior football with the Suburbs club, the 17-year-old Pongia moved to Canterbury in 1988 and represented the Junior Kiwis from the Riccarton club.


“(In 1988) I was a guest speaker for the Riccarton end-of-year dinner,” recalls Pongia’s former Canterbury and New Zealand coach, Frank Endacott.


“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.”


The raw second-rower, who subsequently transferred to Linwood, earned a maiden Test call-up to face Papua New Guinea in 1992 shortly before his 22nd birthday and played in the ensuing series against touring Great Britain. He also represented New Zealand Māori  in 1992 and was virtually an automatic Kiwis selection when available for the next eight years.


“He’s right up there with anyone – you talk to the Rubens (Wiki) and Staceys (Jones) that played with him, they will tell you they loved playing with Quentin Pongia,” Endacott continues.


“I’ve spoken to Australians and English players who say he’s the hardest player they every played against. He was a tough nut and a guy we all loved.


“He was the only 80-minute prop in the world at the time and if I brought him off 10 minutes early, he’d give me the message – he hated coming off. And the tougher it was, the better he went.”


Pongia linked with Australian heavyweight Canberra in 1993, toured Britain and France with the Kiwis at the end of that season and was a tower of strength in the Raiders’ charge to premiership glory after shifting to prop in 1994.


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“I brought (Pongia) and (Wellington prop John) Lomax to our first training session for 1993 and they just started belting blokes,” Raiders coach Tim Sheens revealed in 2019.


“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.”


An aggressive, confrontational style ensured he was a frequent visitor to the judiciary, but Pongia nevertheless played 21 consecutive Tests for New Zealand from 1995-98.


Pongia’s international tenure peaked in 1998 during a one-season stay with the Warriors, playing an inspirational role in the Kiwis’ famous Anzac Test defeat of Australia at North Harbour, captaining his country in four post-season Tests – including a historic series win in Great Britain – and winning the New Zealand player of the year award.


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“I knew how much respect he had from the players. He wasn’t an after-dinner speaker, but he was a player that led from the front – he’d say ‘follow me’ and everyone would, no questions asked. That’s why he was my captain,” Endacott explains.


Still a world-class performer in the engine-room into his thirties, Pongia bowed out of the international arena after New Zealand’s loss to Australia in the 2000 World Cup final. The latter stages of a colourful, globetrotting club career encompassed stints with Sydney Roosters (1999-2001), French outfit Villeneuve (2002-03), St George Illawarra (2003) and Wigan (2003-04), featuring in Super League grand final and Challenge Cup final losses with the Cherry and Whites before hanging up the boots.


Post-playing, Pongia returned to Canberra as a strength and conditioning coach and NRL assistant coach at the Raiders, aided the Kiwis as a trainer and was a wellbeing officer for Manly Sea Eagles.


‘Q’ faced his cancer battle, which he lost in 2019, with the same courage, resilience and humility that characterised one of the era’s great New Zealand rugby league careers.


“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,” Canberra legend Ricky Stuart said after Pongia’s death.


“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.”





Clubs: Suburbs (Greymouth), Riccarton, Linwood, Canberra Raiders, Auckland Warriors, Sydney Roosters, Villeneuve, St George Illawarra Dragons, Wigan Warriors

Provinces: Canterbury


New Zealand Representative:


1992  1 Test v Papua New Guinea

1992  2 Tests v Great Britain

1993  1 Test v Australia

1993  1 Test in Wales

1993  3 Tests in Great Britain

1993  1 Test in France

1995  2 Tests v France

1995  3 Tests in Australia

1995  3 Tests at World Cup (England)

1996  2 Tests v Papua New Guinea

1996  3 Tests v Great Britain

1997  2 Tests v Australia (home and away)

1998  3 Tests v Australia (home and away)

1998  3 Tests in Great Britain

2000  5 Tests at World Cup (England)


Total Test Appearances: 35 matches – 2 tries (8 points)

Total Matches Played: 43 matches – 2 tries (8 points)




Kiwis captain in 4 Tests (1998)

New Zealand Player of the Year (1998)