Kalyn Ponga
Newcastle duo Kalyn Ponga and Tamika Upton secured a NRL-NRLW Dally M Medal double. Image by Mark Evans/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

Ponga pips Johnson by a point to claim Dally M Medal

George Clarke September 27, 2023

Newcastle captain Kalyn Ponga has capped a remarkable turnaround in 2023, overcoming a career-threatening concussion scare to snatch the Dally M Medal, edging out hot favourite Shaun Johnson by a point.

Ponga was part of a Newcastle NRL-NRLW top individual honours double with Tamika Upton named the women’s player of the year.

But Ponga’s upset win over Warriors ace Johnson will be the biggest talking point out of the NRL’s night of nights.

Halfback Johnson was widely tipped to take home the prize after steering the Warriors into the top four in their first year back in New Zealand since 2019.

But fullback Ponga, who was part of a Newcastle side that surged into the finals with nine straight wins, pipped Johnson at the post at Royal Randwick on Wednesday night.

Ponga’s feat is all the more remarkable considering he missed five weeks of the season to fly to Canada to receive specialist advice on his troubles with concussion.

“It’s a crazy feeling, I feel humbled and very lucky,” Ponga said.

“I have a lot of people to thank – my family, the staff and my teammates.

“The way I played this year is impossible without your support and love and belief in me.

“I had an early-season holiday and when I was over there I decided I wanted to stop letting people down, and yeah, what a year.”

Ponga did not enter the top 10 in voting until after round 22, and only snatched the lead from Johnson in the penultimate round.

Both he and Johnson were rested in the final week of the season, while North Queensland’s Scott Drinkwater polled third but was ruled ineligible due to suspension.

There was some solace for the Warriors with Andrew Webster named coach of the year after an impressive maiden campaign.

NRL grand finalists Brisbane had four players in the NRL team of the year, while their opponents Penrith had to make do with just two spots.

Panthers winger Sunia Turuva claimed the best rookie prize after a sterling effort on the flank for Ivan Cleary’s Panthers side.

As well as Ponga’s crowning night, Upton was awarded the NRLW Dally M Medal.

She will play in Sunday’s grand final against the Titans, whose mentor Karyn Murphy was hailed as the game’s best coach.

“This is definitely not an individual award,” Upton said.

“I think from the moment I stepped foot (in Newcastle), I’ve been supported by everyone involved and that spreads to my teammates.

“For my family and friends back home who have always supported me, I can feel the love so thank you.” 



Player of the year: Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle)

Rookie: Sunia Turuva (Penrith)

Captain: Adam Reynolds (Brisbane)

Coach: Andrew Webster (Warriors)

NRL team of the year: Kalyn Ponga, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Herbie Farnworth, Stephen Crichton, Jamayne Isaako, Ezra Mam, Shaun Johnson, Payne Haas, Harry Grant, Addin Fonua-Blake, Liam Martin, David Fifita, Patrick Carrigan. 


Player of the year: Tamika Upton (Newcastle)

Rookie: Annessa Biddle (Cronulla)

Captain: Simaima Taufa (Canberra)

Coach: Karyn Murphy (Gold Coast)

NRLW team of the year: Tamika Upton, Jakiya Whitfield, Isabelle Kelly, Mele Hufanga, Julia Robinson, Tarryn Aiken, Ali Brigginshaw, Shannon Mato, Destiny Brill, Sarah Togatuki, Yasmin Clydesdale, Olivia Kernick, Simaima Taufa.