NRL.com – Why Ponga changed his mind on the Knights

Newcastle Knights NRL

Kalyn Ponga still remembers his reaction. That day his father came back to their Townsville home and presented him with a contract opportunity to join the Newcastle Knights.

“I didn’t want to sign with the Knights,” Ponga told NRL.com.

“When Dad put down the Knights contract in front of me, I just looked at where they were then. They were at the bottom of the ladder. That’s all I really saw.”

Making matters more difficult, Ponga had arguably the game’s greatest player in his ear, pleading with him to stay at the North Queensland Cowboys.

Johnathan Thurston was calling him from England during the 2016 Four Nations to convince him not to leave.

“He cares about me,” Ponga said of Thurston. “He had me under his wing for the last two years up there. He was just a bit worried about me.”

So when Ponga finally decided to ink a lucrative four-year deal with the Knights, the ensuing phone call with the Cowboys skipper was always going to be uncomfortable.

“He was obviously filthy,” Ponga said. “But I decided to take my own path. I think he understands.”

The news shocked Thurston. “I was disappointed and surprised,” Thurston said.

“He’s one of the most talented kids I’ve seen come through. He was doing things here that no one else can do.

“He’s very Matty Bowen-like in his footwork and skill level. I was pretty sad to see him go.”

Kalyn Ponga at the 2018 Emerging Maroons camp.
Kalyn Ponga at the 2018 Emerging Maroons camp.
©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

That was more than a year ago now. Since then, the Knights have added yet another wooden spoon to the collection, but Ponga’s opinion of the club has changed as drastically as its roster this off-season.

After putting aside his initial reservations about the potential of linking with the Knights, Ponga spent a week in Newcastle at the end of 2016 to get a gauge of his desire to be an integral part of the club’s rebuild.

He checked out the club’s facilities, played a round of golf (and lost some money) with Knights legend Danny Buderus, and invited himself over to the coach’s house for dinner.

“I didn’t have much food in my hotel room,” Ponga said.

“I had heard that Browny’s wife cooks a good feed, so I invited myself over for dinner.”

It is there that Brown, alongside football manager Darren Mooney and former Knights player Dane Gagai, began planting the seed that would eventually convince Ponga to leave a premiership force for a club that had been starved of success since Wayne Bennett’s sudden departure in 2014.

“To be honest, we didn’t think we were going to get him,” Brown told NRL.com.

“We didn’t think we would get anyone at one stage. But we did have some hope there because Kalyn wanted to play fullback and we had something to offer from that point of view.”

Ponga was the first. The one Brown used to sell the club when talking to potential signings in the ensuing months.

And according to Newcastle legend Matthew Johns, who together with his brother Andrew and Buderus helped convince Ponga to link with the Knights, he was catalyst for the big names that would soon put pen to paper.

In an interview with NRL.com before Christmas, Johns said: “The Ponga signing sparked a few other signings”.

Brown echoed that sentiment and admitted Ponga rolled the dice leaving the high-flying Cowboys for a club that has tasted very little but heartache over the past few years.

“For such a young and talented kid, he went out on a limb signing with us,” Brown admitted.

“He certainly took a real chance on us. He’s quite mature for his age. To be able to look at us – and we weren’t in a great spot were we? To look at us and take that chance … It wasn’t like he waited for Mitchell Pearce and Aidan Guerra, blokes with Origin experience who have won grand finals. He had some faith.

“Matty, Joey and Bedsy chatted to him. They told him what this town is like when their football team is winning. We’re glad he wanted to be part of it, because he was a starting point and a stepping stone.”

Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown.
Newcastle Knights coach Nathan Brown.
©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

Ponga doesn’t shirk from change. His whole life has been a revolving door of adjustment and opportunity.

“I think that’s why he is so grounded and mature for such a young kid,” Brown said.

He was born in Port Hedland, Western Australia, before moving to Mt Isa in Queensland as an infant.

It’s where he would reside until the tragic passing of his 17-month old brother in 2005.

The family then moved to New Zealand, where his father Andre was born, paving the way for Ponga to fall in love with the sport of golf on his way to becoming the national under 13 champion.

“People tell me I should have just kept playing that,” Ponga said.

“In New Zealand we had a group of six to 12 of us that would go down to the golf course every Saturday and Sunday for like 10 hours and spend time down there. It was our hang out spot. That’s probably why I loved it so much.

“I went from winning that championship to the next year playing just once or twice a month when we moved to Mackay.”

As his passion for golf slowly dwindled when he moved back to Australia in his early teens, his knowledge and love for rugby league was ignited.

“I just swapped the golf sticks for footy boots,” he said.

For the most part, rugby league was just about fun with friends for Ponga.

It’s why he was so uncomfortable with some of the attention he was starting to receive as a result of word spreading about his natural freakish ability just five games into his new sport.

“For a manager to come up to you after five games of footy, it was pretty confronting,” Ponga said.

“I didn’t really like it.”

But after moving to Brisbane, where he would go on to land an under 20’s contract with the Cowboys, things began to change.

Regardless of how the spotlight made him feel, there would be no denying his talent once he hit television screens around the country.

“Dad always had a saying that as long as you give it your best, I will back you,” Ponga said.

“Even if it is in marbles.”

We put our cards on the table with Kalyn, and nothing that he’s done at training suggests we made the wrong decision. He’s a very gifted kid.

Nathan Brown

Ponga and his family share a tight bond. It’s why his mother, father and younger sister have all moved with him to Newcastle as he begins the latest phase of his ever-evolving life.

The expectations are high. But the potential he possesses is far greater.

“What Kalyn Ponga is about to do in the next 12 months is going to blow people away,” Matthew Johns said before Christmas.

And to think how close it came to not getting off the ground.

“I was comfortable up north,” Ponga said.

“It wasn’t until once I came down here and saw all the positive people and looked at the pathway and where they could go, that’s what interested me and got me excited. At the start I just thought bottom of the ladder, which isn’t really fair.

“It was a bit hard at the time. I went through a couple of months sitting on options tyring to work out which one I wanted to take the most. Then I came down here, I looked at where they were and kind of saw where they can be and the pathway and future I could see myself in. That’s what I made my decision on.”

From the outside looking in, most were dumbfounded by the Cowboys’ reluctance last season to give Ponga a regular first grade position.

Newcastle Knights fullback Kayln Ponga.
Newcastle Knights fullback Kayln Ponga.
©newcastleknights.com.au

But he doesn’t blame the club. He insists it wasn’t punishment for his defection.

“You just have to make a good thing of a bad situation,” he said.

And it’s precisely that attitude that has left the Knights with a gigantic sense of satisfaction knowing they chose wisely when splashing the cash to lure a player that would convince others to join.

“There’s no doubt, I reckon, that it helped convince Mitchell [Pearce],” Brown said.

“When we spoke to Mitchell about coming to the club, we spoke about Kalyn. We showed him some footage of him at training and how they could work together well. 

“We put our cards on the table with Kalyn, and nothing that he’s done at training suggests we made the wrong decision. He’s a very gifted kid. You don’t have to be a genius to work out he’s special.”

Leave a Reply