Tributes have flowed in for Kiwi great and former Vodafone Warrior Quentin Pongia, who passed away in Greymouth on Saturday at the age of 48 after losing a battle with cancer.
In an age when rugby league had a brutal edge, West Coaster Pongia was as tough as they came.
Not just one of the toughest but the toughest in the eyes of countless team-mates and opponents. Many have spoken of the fear factor Pongia generated throughout his career; few, if any, were game to mess with him and, if they did, they routinely came off second best.
Former Canberra team-mate and now Raiders coach Ricky Stuart was among those to pay tribute.
“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.”
Vodafone Warriors and Kiwis hooker Issac Luke tweeted: “Farrrrrout this has saddened our @NRL and @NZRL_Kiwis community. Moe mai rā tōku tuakana. Thoughts and love to Q’s whanau. No more pain now brother. Only memories of how tough you were as a player on and off the field. May you rest in Love.”
Ex-Kiwi and Vodafone Warriors centre Nigel Vagana tweeted: “My @NZRL_Kiwis debut .. the 1st Anzac Test.. Johnny Lomax got hurt in opening 30secs. Q had to play 80mins in the front row, 1st game back after a long suspension & led us to victory. One of toughest ever in the Black & White. Ka kite ano Uso.”
Brought up in Greymouth, Pongia moved across the Southern Alps to Christchurch where he quickly emerged and developed a strong link with Canterbury and future Kiwi coach Frank Endacott.
Playing for the Riccarton Knights, Pongia impressed for Canterbury at provincial level and, in 1992, began an international career which would see him play 35 Tests for the Kiwis, the last of them in 2000.
In 1998, he spent his only season in Auckland when he became Vodafone Warrior #52 (making 18 appearances), captained the Kiwis and was also named the New Zealand Rugby League player of the year.
He made 74 appearances for the Canberra Raiders from 1993-1997 during which time he and fellow Kiwi Johnny Lomax were rated the most fearsome front row combination in the Winfield Cup competition. But for a number of suspensions, Pongia would have played a lot more games for the Raiders.
Grand final glory came his way when the Raiders beat Canterbury-Bankstown 36-12 in 1994, a match which ended the legendary Mal Meninga’s career (with a young Ruben Wiki among Pongia’s team-mates).
Already united with Endacott with the Kiwis, Pongia joined his mentor at the Auckland Warriors for the 1998 season.
Three seasons followed with the Sydney Roosters before he had a stint in France in 2002. Returning to the NRL in 2003 he had a short stay with the St George Illawarra Dragons and then headed to England to end his playing days with the Wigan Warriors. In all he made 137 NRL appearances.
Pongia remained in the game when his playing days finished, having time on Canberra’s football staff and more recently he worked in the wellbeing area for the NRL, the Rugby League Players’ Association and lastly the Manly Sea Eagles.
He was also on the Kiwis’ staff for the 2009 end of season Four Nations campaign in the United Kingdom and France. Rooming with him on that tour was a memorable and rewarding experience.
Pongia made the trip across the Tasman to join other former and current New Zealand representatives at the annual Ex-Kiwis’ reunion last October. The ravages of his battle with cancer were obvious but it didn’t stop him revelling in the occasion.
Earlier this season Pongia was back in Christchurch for a reunion with a number of team-mates when he was there with Manly for its NRL match against the Vodafone Warriors. It was in essence a farewell as he had the chance to catch up for the final time with a number of his former Kiwi team-mates including Sean Hoppe, Jarrod McCracken, Matthew Ridge and Stephen Kearney.
Pongia returned to his hometown Greymouth recently to spend his final days among family.
He was to be the guest of honour at a lunch rugby league ambassador Sir Peter Leitch has organised at the Ellerslie Event Centre on June 7.
The Vodafone Warriors pass on their condolences to Pongia’s family and close friends.