Victoria teenager Quinn Ngawati, who became the first Canadian-born player to appear for the Toronto Wolfpack, interacts with fans after their game against the Gloucestershire All Golds in Kingstone Press League 1 rugby action in Toronto on Saturday, July 8, 2017. Ngawati now wears the colours of Rugby United New York. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson

Young Canadian back Quinn Ngawati enjoying life in Major League Rugby

Just 21, Victoria’s Quinn Ngawati has already played professionally in both of rugby’s codes, worn the Maple Leaf, had a franchise fold under him and moved continents during a pandemic.

There has been no shortage of learnings along the way.

“It’s definitely been a whirlwind, I’d say. I’ve been able to be a part of a few amazing experiences,” Ngawati said. “And a lot of times it’s obviously not just what you learn on the field but everything you learn off of it.”

Ngawati, after making headlines in rugby league with the Toronto Wolfpack, is now back playing rugby union with Rugby United New York.

Union, the more popular version around the globe, offers 15- and seven-man versions of the game. Rugby league is the 13-man version of rugby.

“I love it,” Ngawati said of RUNY. “I’ve been pretty lucky throughout my short career to have been in some pretty incredible cities.”

Ngawati (pronounced Now-r-tee) will renew acquaintances with some fellow Canadians on Sunday when RUNY hosts the Toronto Arrows in Major League Rugby play. Ngawati knows a lot of the Arrows, from his days with Canada’s under-20 team and time with Rugby Canada’s Pacific Pride academy.

“I definitely spent a lot of time with those guys and consider them my close friends, for sure,” said Ngawati, who has been playing wing for RUNY.

While the pandemic has limited Ngawati’s appreciation of the Big Apple, he hopes to explore it more when pandemic restrictions lift. In a positive sign, a limited number of fans will be allowed at Sunday’s game at Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City, N.J.

RUNY (3-1-0) entered weekend play atop MLR’s Eastern Conference with 15 points, four points ahead of third-place Toronto, after defeating Old Glory DC 38-34 with Ngawati scoring a late try while Canada coach Kingsley Jones watched from the crowd.

Toronto (2-3-0) is coming off a record-breaking 52-7 win over the Seattle Seawolves. The 45-point victory margin erased the previous MLR record of 42 set by both the Seawolves (2019) and the now-defunct Glendale Raptors (2019).

Ngawati’s coaches have raved about the hard-running young Canadian in both rugby union and rugby league.

“He’s six foot four, yeah he’s 105 kgs (231 pounds) and he’s got great skills. I think this guy is one hell of a talent,” said former RUNY coach Greg McWilliams, who signed Ngawati last October before stepping down prior to the 2021 season.

Former Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley called Ngawati a “rough diamond.”

Ngawati’s father is from New Zealand with Maori roots — a background proudly illustrated via the tattoo on the back of Quinn’s calf. Ngawati Sr., played rugby league so Quinn grew up immersed in both union and league. His mother is Canadian, meeting her future husband in New Zealand.

Ngawati was one of three players to survive the initial round of Wolfpack tryouts. He was in class — possibly physics, he thinks — at St. Michaels University School in Victoria in the summer of 2017 when he got the call from the Wolfpack to come east. He graduated from high school June 19 — four days after turning 18 — and was on a plane June 21.

He made his debut off the bench a month later against Gloucester All Golds in a 62-10 Wolfpack win in England’s third-tier League 1. In doing so, Ngawati became the first Canadian-born player to play pro rugby league according to Canada Rugby League, the governing body of the sport in Canada.

He also played in Toronto’s next game.

In March 2018, he was loaned to the lower-tier London Skolars before being recalled to Toronto to play the final game of the second-tier Betfred Championship season.

Ngawati left Toronto at the end of the 2018 season, returning to rugby union — splitting time training with the Canadian sevens squad and the Pacific Pride in Langford, B.C.

He rejoined the rugby league side in March 2020, flying to England to play for League 1’s Rochdale Hornets while training with the Wolfpack full time.

But COVID-19 put a halt to that.

Arriving on a Thursday, he played for Rochdale on Sunday. And then sports stopped.

“I think the world — England, at least — shut down maybe the Tuesday or Wednesday after that,” Ngawati recalled.

With uncertainly over what lay ahead, he stayed in England. He was lucky enough to have some family in England, so he lived with them, training alone and trying to stay ready.

“I felt like I gained a lot of mental toughness,” he said. “In the past I’ve never had to deal with that type of adversity, training on my own and not having really a set time or place where you might be playing again. So I thought that I definitely learned a lot from that.”

The Wolfpack players had agreed to a reduced salary, so they were getting some pay. Ngawati said they felt luckier than most, given the circumstances.

The Wolfpack paycheques ended in June, although they were told they would get paid eventually. Ngawati says he has fond memories of the Wolfpack, despite its eventual collapse

“I’m always going to be grateful to the Wolfpack … It’s probably the tightest-knit group of guys that I’ve been with. But at the end of the day it is a business.”

He came back to Canada in August after the Wolfpack stood down, unable to finance the rest of the season. Last November, he was part of Canada’s high-performance 15s camp.

Ngawati has already played for the Maple Leafs, Canada’s developmental sevens side, as well as Canada’s under-20 15s team.

As for a return to rugby league, Ngawati says he is keeping his options open.

“I especially feel there might be a little chip on my shoulder not being able to fulfil the goal of playing a Super League game,” he said. “So that’s always going to be kind of leaving things half-done. And that’s one thing that I would definitely like to try and fulfil by the end of my career.”

At the Wolfpack, Ngawati got to meet former All Black Sonny Bill Williams, someone he watched growing up and had looked up to and based his game on.

“A lot of times people say never meet your heroes or your idols. But for me, it was the complete opposite because he was exactly what he’s made out to be,” Ngawati said.

At RUNY, he is rubbing shoulders with former England back Ben Foden and All Blacks scrum half Andy Ellis.

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