Rugby League: Endacott seeks a new warrior class

The coach of New Zealand's rugby league Test side is totally focused on a series victory.
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The Independent Online
IF THEY allowed themselves to think in that way, the coach and captain of the New Zealand squad trying to win a Test series in Britain for the first time in 28 years could easily find themselves distracted by events back home.

Beneath Frank Endacott's affability, there is the knowledge that he no longer has a club job when he returns. Quentin Pongia, who moved to the Auckland Warriors partly on the strength of Endacott being coach there, will, like nine other members of the party, go back to find an entirely new regime at the club.

If it is worrying Endacott, he is not letting it show. "I'm a realist," he says. "When Graham Lowe took over the club, I knew I was out of a job, because we've had a running battle for years.

"It's a pity, because this Auckland squad is two years away from really making it."

Where they and Endacott must make it now is on the international stage, starting at Huddersfield in the first Lincoln Test tomorrow. Fresh from the disappointment of taking a one-Test lead against Australia only to lose the series yet again, he says that it is very important for a country where the Warriors are just one symptom of the game's turmoil to win here for the first time since 1970. "I know you need it as well," he tells his hosts. "But we need it more."

Under the circumstances, the last thing Endacott needed midway through the Australian series was to lose his captain, full-back and goal-kicker - permanently, it turns out, because Matthew Ridge has reacted to a serious arm injury by retiring from international rugby. The right choice of a new on-field leader was essential.

"I could have gone with Steven Kearney, or Jarrod McCracken or two or three others, but Quentin is a very, very popular choice among the players.

"His style is to lead by example. He's no after-dinner speaker, but you'd like him in the trenches with you."

Pongia, although only 28, is an old-fashioned Kiwi forward from the hot- bed of the game on the west coast of the South Island, a place renowned for the toughness of its terrain and its style of play.

That approach has got him into trouble at times, with regular visits to the game's judiciary while with Canberra Raiders.

"When I was a young player starting out in the Australian competition, I was out to prove something to the other forwards who were around," Pongia says. "Perhaps going to the judiciary as often as I did wasn't the right way to prove myself.

"I've had to change a few things. I'm more disciplined than I was when I started out. It's a fine line, but I don't think my tackling is all that much different from other front-rowers. You're out to dominate your opposition and if you tackle them around the legs they're going to run at you all day."

No after-dinner speaker, perhaps, but that sums up the front-rower's duties, even in this fairly sanitised era, pretty eloquently.

Like so many of his team-mates, Pongia does not know what to expect when he returns to those duties with Auckland.

"We know that our new coach, Mark Graham, was a huge player, but as a coach we don't know what the guy's like. It's a bit upsetting for all of us.

"Frank's just focusing on the series. I'm sure he's hurting on the inside, but he'll get on with the job."

In a sense, Endacott is in the shop window on this trip. Already popular within the game, a series win will confirm him as a good coach as well as a good guy.

And he does still have ambitions at club level. "I'm available for any job at the top level, anywhere. I'm at the peak of my coaching powers; it would be a shame to give it away."

Although he has not spoken to the London Broncos about their vacancy, Britain is his likeliest destination.

"I've been here five times and I love it more each time," he says. But he is also a man with other priorities.

One sporting event he will miss this year is watching his 30-year-old son, Gary, running in the New York Marathon. Gary has celebral palsy, despite which he plays rugby league to a good standard as well as tuning himself into a marathon runner.

"When he was a little kid, he used to fall over every five yards. He's run the New York Marathon twice now - with me and his mum there to see him - and he hasn't even stumbled. He's the first person with celebral palsy to run it unaided."

Frank Endacott positively glows with pride in his son's achievement. "It puts it all in perspective," he says.

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