The opportunity to be part of the historic Toronto Wolfpack team in 2017 saw athletes from all over North America come together for open trials in Canada, America and Jamaica.
And so it should have, this after all was a chance to be part of the world’s first trans-Atlantic sports team, with Toronto having secured a place in English rugby league’s third-tier League 1 competition.
After scouting talent in Toronto, Tampa, Philadelphia, Kingston and Vancouver, the group was narrowed down to the very best 18, who traveled over to England for a final trial where three contracts were to be handed out.
Such was the calibre, the group included a former Buffalo Bills NFL player named Corey Knox.
That perhaps puts into perspective how amazing it is that a relatively unknown 17-year-old was able to rise above the rest and earn a Wolfpack contract before he had even finished high school.
A self-proclaimed “Canadian Kiwi”, Quinn Ngawati wowed selectors with a dominant performance in the final match against Brighouse Rangers, scoring a try and showing glimpses of the type of rugby league skills which are hardly ever seen in that part of the world.
“They were looking for a diamond in the rough…there were a lot of skilled athletes at the final trial and a few guys who had played high level American football as well,” Ngawati tells kiwileaguecentral.com.
“We played the trial game on the Saturday, and I thought I went pretty well, we found out on Monday if we’d made it and when I got selected it was really a sense of relief.”
Born in Canada and partially raised in New Zealand, Quinn’s mum Melissa is Canadian, while dad Tony hails from New Zealand and is of Ngapuhi descent.
Tony played for central Auckland club the Marist Saints as a youngster, while also representing Auckland at age-group level.
Quinn attended intermediate school in Tauranga before returning for a second stay in New Zealand to play rugby union in the Waikato, a move which he credits for fast-tracking his development on and off the field.
“I went to Hamilton Boys’ High School as a boarder. The big thing was the rugby at that point, union was what I was working towards,” Quinn says.
“I was selected into the Colts team, so there were lots of boys from the boarding house with that team.
“I played a few games against representative sides and was lucky enough to be selected into the Waikato representative U-16 team.
“But mum and dad were missing me and I had a few opportunities with school in Canada which I wouldn’t have had in NZ.
“Rugby doesn’t last your whole life so I thought if I could get a good schooling then I should take advantage of that and try and set up a good career post athletics.”
A noted athlete across several different sports (as we organised this interview he was away on school basketball duties), Quinn quickly found success in the 13-aside game, where he has been used in the centres, at five-eighth and as an edge and middle forward.
It was on a trip away with Canada’s national U-17 team that Quinn’s Wolfpack journey started.
“In the [Canadian] summer of 2016 I was selected to play for the Canada Wolverines U-17 side, we travelled to Jamaica and played a Test there and my coach Andy Blackburn on the way home said, ‘hey this is coming up, there is going to be an open trial in Vancouver and there will be no harm in you going out and giving it a shot.’
“I thought even if I didn’t get selected my name would be thrown in the mix, it was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
While at this stage Quinn doesn’t have the physical size to play in the English League 1 competition, later this year he will head across to the UK to link up with a rugby league academy, with a view to earning a Wolfpack debut down the track.
Blackburn said he saw something special in Quinn the second he touched the ball at training.
“I first him in 2014 when he instantly reminded me of a very young Sonny Bill Williams,” Blackburn says.
“He proved quickly to be a natural leader and his attention to detail and skill acquisition set him apart and made him an obvious choice to be a captain of the Canada U-17 national team.
“Apart from his obvious natural athleticism and physical stature, Quinn’s vast toolbox of skills made him arguably the best player in each position on the field.
“I was fully confident he would make it through the Wolfpack trials; never had a doubt
“Having coached for 17 years in Canada, I had never come across a player with the full package, who in addition hailed from a league family and had a deep love of the game which was practically unknown in Canada.
“I called both Quinn and the Wolfpack and told them if there was one player I would recommend and stake my reputation on making their professional team, it was a 17-year-old kid who had only played a handful of rugby league games…..called Quinn Ngawati. The rest is history.
“He just needs games under his belt, a professional environment in which to thrive.”
In the meantime Quinn says he is excited to join a bevy of Kiwi league talent in the UK, with an open mind on the idea of returning back to New Zealand on a full-time basis at some point.
“When I was over in England for the trial I saw guys like Sam Rapira, Fuifui Moimoi, household names that are over there. Being Maori and Kiwi as well, seeing those guys out there is really motivating for me, and hopefully wherever I go there will be a few Kiwi guys there who I can learn off,” he said.
“I am going to be really happy to be surrounded by guys who are committed to the same sort of thing I am.
“I would always love the opportunity to return home to New Zealand, the NRL is what I grew up watching and even since being back over in Canada we are always getting up to watch the games…I’d love to play for a team over there.
“We will have to see where this goes.”
Words by Corey Rosser