New Zealand league has lost a wonderful player — and a unique character — with the passing of Quentin Pongia.

The 48-year-old died in Greymouth yesterday after battling bowel cancer.

Hailing from the West Coast, the former Kiwis captain was one of the hardest men to play the game, with former Canberra team-mate Ricky Stuart describing him as "the toughest player I ever played with".

He was intensely aggressive during a period where coaches put a premium on physicality.


But Pongia was also highly skilled as a ball-playing prop or second rower.

Pongia achieved great heights with the Raiders and was part of their famous premiership-winning team in 1994.

But probably his greatest moments came with the Kiwis, whom he represented in 35 tests between 1992 and 2000, including two World Cups.

The last time I saw Quentin Pongia, he gave then Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney an almighty scare during an opposed training session in 2014.

The Kiwis were preparing for the Four Nations tournament and Kearney had invited former team-mates Pongia and Clinton Toopi to provide some input at the session in Brisbane.

Both men got involved in the contact drills, and Pongia, then 44-years-old, rolled back the years with some big hits, at one point almost knocking Kieran Foran off his feet.

The five-eighth had arrived in camp nursing some niggles and Kearney's heart leapt when he saw Pongia topple Foran.

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


For his part, Pongia loved the experience, with his zest for the sport and the camaraderie that goes with it shining through.

Quentin Pongia in action during a match against Australia in 1998. Photo / Photosport
Quentin Pongia in action during a match against Australia in 1998. Photo / Photosport

"I was like a kid again and it's always good to help out," said Pongia. "When Mooks [Kearney] asked me to come down, I jumped at it. I'm a pretty serious kind of guy and hope it rubs off on the players around me."

Pongia, despite being the wrong side of 40, still enjoyed the physical side of the sport.

"You miss that contact, hitting blokes [and] being hit," said Pongia. "I feel it's an excuse to say you're too old. Who says you're too old to do anything? As long as you're fit and stay healthy, you can do anything in life."

At the time, Pongia ran a personal training company in Brisbane and was also an assistant coach for local side Easts. He still played and was looking forward to the upcoming Pan Pacific Masters (over 35 years) tournament on the Gold Coast.

"It's a great outlet; it's also therapeutic and calming, to tell you the truth, and I'll keep doing it as long as I can," he said.

Pongia came from great league stock, with grandfather Bill Calder a strongman of the Kiwis pack in the 1930s.

Born on the West Coast, Pongia moved to Christchurch as a teenager and was quickly noticed on the local league scene.

"He looked like a professional in the making as a young player," recalled long-time league journalist John Coffey. "You saw the smarts in him from an early age."

His career at the Raiders encompassed five seasons and 74 matches. He also played for the Warriors (1998), Roosters and Dragons, as well as two seasons at Wigan. But his local legend was carved out in the black and white jersey. He was integral to the back-to-back wins over Australia at North Harbour Stadium in the late 1990s, and captained the 1998 touring team that remain the only Kiwis side unbeaten from a three-test series in England.

"He was skilful, had determination, was rugged and took no prisoners," recalled Coffey.

"He was scared of nothing."