Tevita Pangai Jr to make NRL comeback with Dolphins

Joel Gould and Jasper Bruce |

Tevita Pangai Jr will make his NRL return with the Dolphins under his former coach Wayne Bennett.
Tevita Pangai Jr will make his NRL return with the Dolphins under his former coach Wayne Bennett.

Tevita Pangai Jr has joined the Dolphins for the remainder of the NRL season to reunite with old mentor Wayne Bennett, only months after quitting the sport to pursue a career in boxing.

A former NSW representative forward, Pangai announced last August he would leave Canterbury at the end of the 2023 season, forgoing a salary of about $750,000 in 2024.

But the 28-year-old began angling for a return to rugby league in March this year while playing under ex-NRL star Karmichael Hunt at QRL side Souths Logan.

AAP reported last month Pangai had held informal talks with Brisbane and Melbourne.

But on Friday, Pangai signed a short-term deal to join the Dolphins under Wayne Bennett, the coach who handed him his NRL debut at the Broncos in 2016.

“I am really looking forward to Tevita getting back on the field and I am so glad it is with the Dolphins,” said Bennett.

“He is a good player that I have always enjoyed coaching, and I think he will be a strong addition to our squad.”

Pangai played his best football under Bennett. When he was a youngster at Canberra and yet to play NRL, he got Bennett’s number and called him looking for an opportunity. His career took off thereafter.

“In my final year under Wayne in 2018 I had my breakout season,” Pangai told AAP in May.

“Wayne is like my boxing trainer (Chris McCullen). He just cares for me on a personal level. He is the master.

“I loved playing under Wayne and I had the chance to follow him to South Sydney in 2019.

“I said no and sometimes I look back and feel as though I should have. Wayne understands me and knows how to get the best out of me. I would love to play under him again.”

Pangai’s wish has now been granted.

The five-time Tongan international will beef up a Dolphins forward pack missing star players Tom Gilbert and Tom Flegler to injury.

Capable of playing either on an edge or through the middle, Pangai had been one of the NRL’s most damaging forwards on his day, making a total of 138 first-grade appearances across stints with the Broncos, Penrith and Bulldogs.

He featured in the Panthers’ run to the 2021 grand final, though he  missed their win in the decider through injury, and made his State of Origin debut for NSW in game one last year.

Pangai fought twice while still playing NRL and three times after quitting rugby league to pursue boxing, losing his most recent bout against Kenny Niko last month to take his record to 4-1-0. 

Pangai has a strong relationship  with Tonga coach Kristian Woolf who is Dolphins assistant coach and will take over from Bennett as head coach next year. If Pangai fires, he could get a longer-term deal under Woolf.

“That is a big thing. Tevita can help us out and we can help him out,” Dolphins CEO Terry Reader said.

“He is back in the shop window, hopefully doing a good job, and there will then be interest to sign him (for 2025 and beyond). That could be with us as well.

“Tevita wants to be in a full-time NRL system and get back on the field. He played the last two games in the Queensland Cup for Souths-Logan and has been getting his match fitness up.”