Scour back through the almanacks and you’ll find no shortage of New Zealand players who never quite reached their potential on the international circuit. John Drake, Marty Holah – even Richard Kahui – history is littered with players who, for whatever reasons, weren’t able to achieve what many thought would be a foregone conclusion. One of the most promising midfielders of recent years, Charlie Ngatai, will shortly be added to this list.
Charlie Ngatai, born to Kirk and Lisa Ngatai in 1990, was a star performer for his local Gisborne Boys’ High School team in his formative years, eventually going on to captain the First XV. Ngatai represented New Zealand at the Sydney Youth Olympic as a sprinter and took advantage of his trademark pace all over the Gisborne backline, paving the way for him to play senior rugby for Poverty Bay in the Heartland Championship in his final year of schooling.
Ngatai seemed to be destined for great things and was picked up by Wellington in 2009 to start his professional rugby career. An under-20 berth with Dave Rennie’s World Champion squad in 2010 was Ngatai’s first opportunity to represent New Zealand rugby on the international circuit and he took his chances well, playing in every single match of New Zealand’s campaign. It was post-2010 where Ngatai’s career progression slowed – primarily due to a number of injuries, something which ultimately plagued his entire career.
Although he was picked up by the Hurricanes in 2011, Ngatia notched up just two appearances for the Wellington-based Super Rugby team over two seasons. 2011 was almost a complete write-off for Ngatai due to injury and even when fit he was never able to cement any semblance of regular game time in a backline containing players such as Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane – even though Ngatai was capable of playing in almost any position in the backline.
The sheer level of competition at the Hurricanes prompted a move to the Chiefs in 2012, where Ngatai linked up with his former U20 mentor, Dave Rennie. It was here that Ngatai really started to flourish, forming strong midfield combinations with Sonny Bill Williams, Seta Tamanivalu, Tim Nanai-Williams and, in the latter years, Anton Lienert-Brown.
Ngatai’s robust frame – surpassing both six feet and 100kgs – meant that he was a perfect battering ram in the midfield, and his underappreciated fend forced many a player onto their backside over the years, but it was his speed that really seemed to take defenders by surprise. Unsurprisingly for an age-grade sprinter, Ngatai was one of the quickest players on the field – especially over short distances – and it was his combination of power and explosive pace that made him a line-breaking specialist for the Chiefs.
Ngatai’s transfer to the Chiefs coincided with him soon switching provinces from Wellington to Taranaki, where current Chiefs coach Colin Cooper had the reigns. As in his early years, Ngatai spent time in both the midfield and at fullback for Taranaki and was a standout performer for the team when they won the ITM Cup in 2014. Ngatai’s level head, strong rugby IQ and close bond with Cooper also meant he was selected as Taranaki’s regular captain during his time in New Plymouth – a role that became commonplace for Ngatai during his professional career.
His performances at provincial and Super Rugby level meant that when fit, Ngatai quickly became an automatic selection for Maori All Blacks representative side – a team that he also went on to captain. Ngatai managed 12 appearances for the side over six seasons, including the match against the touring British and Irish Lions in 2017.
Ngatai’s form over the years since he transferred to the Chiefs was finally rewarded in 2015 when he was selected in the All Blacks for their first ever match in Samoa. Few would have been surprised to see Ngatai finally in black given his obvious natural ability and his time earning his stripes at the lower levels. Though he not sighted on the field until the final quarter of the game, his first cap gave a glimpse of what Ngatai could offer the national team when he showed off his monstrous fend.
The sad news for Ngatai, though he would not have known it at the time, was that his first cap also turned out to be his last. There have been many rugby careers in New Zealand ended by concussion in recent years, a fate Ngatai only narrowly managed to avoid.
A head-knock early in the 2016 Super Rugby season meant Ngatai wasn’t sighted on the pitch for almost a year. Even after finally making a return, Ngatai was sometimes only able to notch up a few matches in a row before succumbing to one injury or another. He himself has admitted that there was a period during his concussion battles that he thought he’d never be able to play again, so it was a huge relief for fans of the game as well as fans of the player when he was finally able to make a return to fulltime rugby.
Though somewhat disappointing, it came as no surprise when Ngatai announced that he had signed for French club Lyon at the beginning of 2018. Though only an injury or two away from being called back into the All Blacks, his own personal injuries could well terminate his rugby career at any moment. Professional sports careers are often fleeting and you have to make the most of the time you are given. No doubt, Ngatai is aware that the time is nigh for him to cash in on his ability and set his family up for the future.
Of course, post-signing for Lyon, Ngatai still had one more season for the Chiefs to complete. Though injuries meant he wasn’t able to feature as much as he would have liked, Ngatai was still one of the team’s top performers – and the team performed noticeably better when he started in the midfield. Charlie Ngatai will never be remembered as a great All Black, but his contributions at provincial and Super Rugby level will never be forgotten. Were it not for some incredibly unfortunate luck, Ngatai could well have gone on to have an illustrious international career. Instead, Ngatai will forever be fondly thought of as one of the countries top Chiefs.
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