TORONTO — The Toronto Wolfpack liked what they saw in Quinn Ngawati during tryouts last year.
And the Victoria teenager has continued to impress after joining the fledgling rugby league club mid-season. The 18-year-old, who arrived last week, is slated to remain with the team for the current four-game homestand.
“We’re excited about having him here … Hopefully we get to give him a run-out,” said Toronto coach Paul Rowley.
Canada Day would seem an ideal time to showcase a homegrown talent. The league-leading Wolfpack (12-0-0) host the fourth-place York City Knights (8-4-0) on Saturday night at Lamport Stadium.
Rowley also has a long injury list that includes Ryan Bailey, Jack Bussey, Andrew Dixon, Dan Fleming, Rhys Jacks, Adam Sidlow, Richard Whiting and Blake Wallace. Most were seen as 50/50 propositions to play although Wallace (ankle) and Dixon (broken bone in ankle/foot) are definitely out.
“We sensed an opportunity,” Rowley said of Ngawati’s arrival in camp coinciding with the spate of injuries. “One door closes, another one opens.”
Ngawati (pronounced Now-ar-tee) took part in the warmup before Toronto’s 56-12 win over Hunslet RLFC last Saturday and watched from the bench, although he was not part of the matchday 17.
Should Ngawati see action, he would be the first Canadian to play for the Wolfpack. While Jacks and Tom Dempsey are Canadian internationals, they were born and bred in Australia and qualify for Canada via their bloodlines.
The last player off the practice field at a session this week, Ngawati is clearly enjoying his time with the Wolfpack.
“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “The lads are treating me well. I’m just trying to get into the rhythm — obviously it’s a pretty big step up from high school rugby.”
Rowley calls Ngawati a “rough diamond.”
“Quinn’s here because he’s a fantastic athlete,” said Rowley. “He’s got raw ingredients. He needs an awful lot of work but people like Quinn excite us coaches because they’re a challenge. If we can progress them at the rate that’s required, they’re success stories.”
At six foot four and 212 pounds, Ngawati is hard to miss on the training field. Rowley sees him as a potential back-row or second-row forward.
“I think he’s going to be a big boy,” said Rowley. “He’s still got a boy’s body, although it’s a big one.”
Ngawati, who turned 18 in June, was one of three trialists to survive the cut after 18 players were invited to England from tryout camps in Canada, the U.S. and Jamaica. Ngawati attended the last tryout in Vancouver.
The 18 trialists, who included former Buffalo Bill Corey Knox, spent a little more than a week at camp in England before beating a local side, the Brighouse Rangers, 28-26 with Ngawati contributing a try.
American Joe Eichner, another to survive the cut, has already made his Wolfpack debut.
Ngawati, who attends St. Michaels University School in suburban Victoria, has also excelled at rugby union and spent time with the Canadian under-19 and under-20 teams.
Ngawati’s father is from New Zealand with Maori roots. He played rugby league so the Canadian-born Quinn grew up immersed in both union and league. His mother is Canadian, meeting her future husband in New Zealand.
The Wolfpack have started life in the third tier of English rugby league, looking to win promotion to the second-tier Championship and then the elite Super League. Toronto, a fully professional side, has faced few challenges so far in outscoring its semi-pro opposition 716-109.
Still, York City arrives having won seven of its last eight, with the lone recent blemish a two-point loss to second-place Whitehaven.
“I think York will be 100 per cent our toughest test,” said Rowley. “And certainly if you throw in the mix all the injuries that we’ve got, then they’ll be sensing something.”
Saturday’s game honours Toronto’s first responders, with Canada Day fireworks after the contest.