Down Under Diary: Are Newcastle Knights right to rely on Kalyn Ponga?

Newcastle are all in on Kalyn Ponga — but as injury strikes again, is KP the right bet? 

YOU wouldn’t have blamed Newcastle fans for believing that 2024 was going to be their year.

Fresh off their first finals victory in a decade, the Knights were expected to mount an even more serious tilt at play-off success. 

That was if — and it’s a big if — Kalyn Ponga could maintain his Dally M-winning form from 2023. 

But after a stuttering start to the new year, the star fullback will spend at least three months on the sidelines thanks to a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot. 

Ponga’s injury leaves Newcastle’s September hopes on life support. 

It’s the latest blow in a high-profile career defined by disruption. 

As a kid, Ponga made more moves than most people make in a lifetime — born in Western Australia, first schooled in regional Queensland, revealed as a sporting prodigy in New Zealand, then welcomed back to Queensland to go through the Broncos’ and Cowboys’ junior pathways. 

A clutch of NRL clubs, plus rugby union’s Queensland Reds and the Australian Football League’s Brisbane Lions, chased Ponga’s signature as a teenager. 

But he stuck with North Queensland, who handed the then-18-year-old an NRL debut in the cauldron of a sudden-death final against arch rivals Brisbane. 

Weeks later, Ponga announced his move to the Knights on a four-year deal worth a reported $600,000 a season from 2018. 

His opportunities were limited in 2017, and a shoulder injury ruled him out of the Cowboys’ charge to that year’s grand final. 

Upon arrival at Newcastle, though, he immediately became one of the NRL’s brightest stars. 

Lifting the Knights off the foot of the ladder after three straight wooden spoons, the 20-year-old fullback finished just two votes behind Warriors No.1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in the 2018 Dally M race. 

However, stability has been in short supply throughout Ponga’s time in red and blue — on and off the field. 

When the Knights sacked coach Nathan Brown in 2019, their gun recruit stirred the pot by saying: “I was at lunch having a nice strawberry thick shake, so I wasn’t too sad.” 

New coach Adam O’Brien returned Newcastle to the finals in the COVID-affected 2020 and 2021 campaigns, but 2022 proved a stinker for both the club and their new captain. 

Represented by his father Andre rather than an accredited player agent, Ponga’s ‘will he stay or will he go’ contract negotiations reached soap opera proportions before he eventually rejected the new Dolphins franchise to stay in Newcastle until the end of 2027 for a reported $1.4 million (£731,000) a year. 

Later that year, after three concussions in six weeks prematurely ended his season, Ponga was videoed in a pub toilet cubicle with team-mate Kurt Mann, then drug-tested by the NRL. 

Following another head knock early in 2023, Ponga underwent neurological testing in Canada to check for brain damage — but the all-clear allayed fears of an early retirement. 

And for the rest of 2023, things finally clicked. 

Spearheaded by their white-hot fullback, the Knights won nine games in a row to steam into September in fifth place, securing their first home final since 2006 — a thrilling golden-point triumph over Canberra at a raucous McDonald Jones Stadium. 

Ponga rode that wave all the way to the Dally M Medal and the Dally M Fullback of the Year award. 

He enjoyed the kind of continuity with form and fitness he’d struggled to unlock his entire career. 

Between making his club debut in Round One of the 2018 campaign and limping off with his injured foot against the Bulldogs in Round seven this year, the Knights played 151 matches — and Ponga missed 36 of them. 

They’re rarely long absences — the fewest games he’s played in any one campaign is 14 — but lots of minor layoffs that derail consistency. 

Ponga is Newcastle’s most important player, so it’s no coincidence that his healthy and productive 2023 led to Newcastle’s best play-off run for a decade. 

His season was perhaps also aided by missing State of Origin — besides 2020, the first interstate series he hasn’t taken part in since joining the Knights — easing the load on his injury-prone body. 

As well as continuity with his body, Ponga benefitted from continuity on the team sheet. 

O’Brien regularly named a spine of Ponga, standoff Tyson Gamble, halfback Jackson Hastings and hooker Phoenix Crossland, following years of revolving-door selections in those vital playmaking positions. 

In Ponga’s time, the Knights have used 11 different five-eighths, nine different halfbacks and nine different hookers. What hope does a fullback have when his lieutenants change every second week? 

The takeaway from all this is simple: when Ponga is fit, and given stability on and off the park, he’s one of the game’s premier players. He can point to his 2023 Dally M as evidence of that. 

But when his body, or Origin, or contract talks, or unreliable team sheets get in the way, Ponga’s powers aren’t as potent — and the Knights suffer for it. 

Since the club’s inception in 1988, Newcastle’s blueprint for success has been simple: surround a generational superstar with a bunch of honest toilers. 

That worked in 1997 and 2001, when Andrew Johns inspired the Knights to their only two premiership titles. 

And after a long barren period, Ponga’s recruitment was lifted straight out of the same playbook. 

Newcastle have put all their eggs in the Kalyn Ponga basket. 

But as a promising 2024 risks slipping through their fingers — opening their account with two wins and five losses before staring at three months minus their key man — even ardent Novocastrians might question whether that’s the right approach. 

The 2023 campaign gave us more than a glimpse of why the Knights are paying Ponga a fortune to captain their club and thrill their legions of long-suffering fans with his high-octane carries from the back. 

And there’s little doubt about the value a fit and firing Ponga provides the men from the Steel City. 

But while Ponga spends time icing his right foot rather than tormenting opposition defences with ball in hand, Newcastle’s hopes of securing their first Provan-Summons Trophy since 2001 look decidedly more dim. 

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

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