Newcastle Knights NRL player Kalyn Ponga.
Kalyn Ponga has bounced back in style for Newcastle since struggling on his return against the Eels. Image by Darren Pateman/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

Ponga’s blunt message that sparked great Newcastle run

Scott Bailey September 13, 2023

It was the bluntest of feedback from Kalyn Ponga’s father that kickstarted the Newcastle fullback’s magical run.

Delivered with brutal honesty and at the absolute low point of the 25-year-old’s season, it came after a 43-12 flogging from Parramatta in April.

“My old man described it as the worst game of sport he has seen me play, ever,” Ponga told AAP.

“And I’ve played a lot of sport.” 

Ponga is the star of this year’s finals series, having set the NRL alight in Newcastle’s run of 10 straight wins that has put the pride back into one of the great rugby league cities.

With the fullback having had a hand in 27 tries in his past nine games, all eyes will again be on him in the Knights’ semi-final with the Warriors on Saturday in Auckland.

It’s easy to forget this is a man who had not just his form but his future in the sport questioned less than five months ago.

Ponga, in his first full game back since a fourth concussion in 10 months, missed 10 tackles while playing five-eighth in that hammering by the Eels.

Andrew Johns labelled the Knights’ defence as among the worst he’d seen from the club, while there were questions over whether Newcastle were a better side without their marquee man.

For Ponga, it was the words of his dad that hit hardest.

“It stung,” Ponga said of the feedback from his father.

“I get criticised (by others) for a lot of things other than my footy. But that was probably the first time I felt like I deserved it, in terms of my performance.

“It probably was a turning point. 

“It motivated me to change and be better. The last thing I want to do is let the boys down, and I felt like I did in that game.”

Ponga’s talent has never been in question.

He was the Players’ Champion in his first full season in 2018, and has been one of Queensland’s best in State of Origin ever since.

But by his own admission, transferring that form to club level had been an issue.

“I’d sort of known when my old man said that, that I probably hadn’t been as consistent at club land over the last few years,” Ponga said.

“I wanted to change that. I wanted to be the best version of myself for these boys and this club.

“I’ve always had that belief in myself that I can be elite. When I go into Origin arenas I play that way because of the people around me. 

“That’s what the coaching staff have done so well here. It’s just giving everyone a role that suits their ability, and everyone’s executing.”

In the past three months, the Ponga Queensland saw has become the same player Newcastle are getting on a weekly basis.

He has moved back to No.1, and while he was once known for attacking only down the left, Ponga has emerged as a threat on both sides of the field.

The naked eye suggests Ponga is more involved, and while the numbers don’t necessarily back that up it is evident he is playing with more energy.

“Playing consistent footy has helped, too,” Ponga said.

“Over the last couple of years I’ve been injured a little bit, whereas I’ve been able to string together a fair few games this year.

“All those things together add up to the way I’m playing.”

Ponga is adamant Newcastle are no one-man team; that all the club’s players deserve the credit. But there is little doubt so much runs through him.

With the fullback relying on good service from Newcastle’s halves, he has been able to shred rivals with his speed and put the Knights’ outside backs into space.

Dom Young has been the beneficiary on the right, while Bradman Best and Greg Marzhew have fired on the left. 

Newcastle have won their way to the finals off the back of that, and are considered as good a chance as any team from outside the top four of making a run at the title.

“It’s the way the team is playing, the structure we have,” Ponga said. 

“I know where I need to be. Maybe back in the day, with the way Mitchell Pearce played, me holding that left was the best thing for the team. 

“But now it’s a team thing, everyone moves.

“It’s just been a roller-coaster year. 

“We just stuck together and looked in. It’s probably why we’re in the position we’re in.”