He’s 22 years old. Born and raised in Victoria. And he has a rugby dream.
He’s only played the sport for five years, yet he’s been a mainstay within the Canadian developmental pipeline for most of his career.
Less than two years after picking up a rugby ball for the first time, when he was in Grade 11, Anton Ngongo earned his first national team opportunity as he went on tour with Canada ‘A’ in the fall of 2016. Since then, he’s played with Canada’s U20 side, had a brief stint playing in New Zealand (before rupturing his Achilles) and most recently, he’s been training and playing with the Pacific Pride (Rugby Canada’s high-performance men’s academy program), as he, ultimately, continues to pursue his Rugby Sevens dream.
We caught up with Ngongo at a picnic table just beside the Johnson Street Bridge on a sunny day in Victoria.
So, since everything shut down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, what’s the latest for you guys?
AN: Training has picked up over the last three weeks or so. We’ve been back training and lifting at (Rugby Canada’s) Al Charron Centre. There are four time slots that you can sign up for and we all have our own designated racks and we’re doing our own programming. So, you walk in wearing masks and you go to your station and you take your mask off there. If you have to get water, you have to put your mask back on. Before you leave you have to spray down your station, then put your mask on and leave the building. It’s a little bit of a process but it’s nice being able to work out.
How did you initially get involved in rugby?
AN: My dad has been involved in rugby for years and he loved Sevens and so, back in the day at the Victoria International 7s, I was a ball boy. But rugby was never really a thing for me because I was very big into basketball and my school didn’t have rugby. However, in Grade 11, when I transferred to Claremont Secondary, I was able to join the high school rugby team in the spring of 2014 and that was the first time I ever played rugby. Up to that point, it had been all about basketball and volleyball.
What got you hooked on rugby?
AN: I just loved getting out there and running around and scoring tries. In Sevens especially, you get out there, score tries and just do some cool stuff on the field.
It didn’t take long for you to get noticed at the national level. What was it like getting the chance to join the Canada ‘A’ side for the American Pacific Challenge in 2016?
AN: That was my first experience at the next level. It was kind of crazy. It was definitely a good thing that I went on it, but it was also just me being thrown in there and trying not to get overwhelmed. It was hard because the guys who were on that tour, being older or having played longer, knew certain nuances without even thinking, while I was just learning that stuff. It was a steep learning curve, but it was a good thing.
So, how would you describe what it was like the following year when you got the chance to don the Maple Leaf with the U20 team?
AN: I was way more comfortable and I knew what to do. Looking back now (at the U20 experience), maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, but it was definitely better than my first tour with Canada A.
After that, in 2018, you had a chance to play in New Zealand, but it didn’t quite go as planned…
AN: Yeah, I was supposed to be down there eight months, but that’s where I ruptured my Achilles. I played a couple of club games and we were just starting to get into their provincial stuff and I would have been trying to make the North Otago team, but then I ruptured my Achilles and came home.
Looking back on that injury and the subsequent rehab, which got you back in playing form last fall, how do you look at the experience?
AN: I look at my Achilles rupture as a blessing and a curse. Obviously rupturing my Achilles isn’t a good thing. But also, it was a good thing because I was able to get back into the Rugby Canada facilities and work on my body. Before that, I was hovering around 190 pounds and when I was at my peak weight, I was 220 pounds. During rehab, I couldn’t run, but I could work on my body and that was a good thing in a certain sense.
What has it been like to be part of the Pacific Pride?
AN: It’s a good group of guys and it’s good to be able to work with people on developing your skills. It’s about competing against each other, but those little competitions are what’s making you and your teammates get better. I think it’s a really good development program.
How would you describe your motivation within rugby?
AN: My motivation is just to prove to myself that I can be the best player I can be. This is where I want to be and I’m going to do the work to compete at the highest level and to play great at the highest level.
Was playing pro always a dream?
AN: Basketball was the dream. Ball was life when I was younger. Even when I was making those next steps in rugby, I never really saw myself at the next level. I feel I have to prove to myself and show myself that with the work, I’m going to get there.
Were there any people in particular who helped you get to where you are in rugby?
AN: Roger and Spencer Robinson, who coach with Castaway Wanderers, were continuously pushing me and pushing me to get to where I am now. Roger, especially, was definitely an inspiration who pushed me to get better from an early age.
Away from the pitch, what keeps you busy?
AN: Just hanging out with friends. I’m a social butterfly. I really like just going out and doing stuff – hanging out at the beach or playing cards or going on a patio – anything and everything that’s social. That’s me.
Amidst the Black Lives Matter movement, what has been your experience?
AN: It’s been different. When all this stuff started happening, it just put things into perspective and I just got thinking that that could happen to me.
It’s been difficult and different and uncomfortable. It’s good that light is finally being brought to the situation. People are finally starting to educate themselves and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. If someone comes to talk to me about it, I’m always open and very honest about my points of view.
So, what’s next for you? What’s the plan?
AN: This upcoming year, I’ll mostly be doing Pride. I’m also on a Sevens developmental card, so I’ll train with the Sevens team once or twice a week as I work to get ready to eventually play Sevens at the national level.
And what’s the long range goal?
AN: My goal right now is to play Sevens and work toward the next Olympic cycle. Down the road, maybe I’ll try to play 15s overseas or MLR, but the goal now is totally Sevens.