Green: Ponga a Cowboy, for now
Cowboys coach Paul Green has effectively shut the door on teen sensation Kalyn Ponga making an early exit from Townsville, insisting he remains very much a key part of North Queensland's plans for the 2017 season.
Reports surfaced on Wednesday that Ponga had agreed to a multi-million dollar deal to join the Newcastle Knights with the Knights particularly keen to prise Ponga south next season.
But with a current contract with the Cowboys that doesn't conclude until the end of the 2017 season, Knights fans will have to wait a further 12 months to see arguably the hottest talent in the game in red and blue according to Green.
"He's still a contracted player, he's part of our plans and part of our squad," Green said as North Queensland players returned for pre-season training.
"Kalyn's contracted to us for next year, he's part of our plans for next year and as such he's expected to play for us."
On the topic of a potential release from the final year of his contract Green said that Ponga "hasn't asked me" and was "not too sure" whether such a request had been made of the club.
Conceding that the Cowboys simply couldn't match the dollars reportedly on offer at Newcastle, Green said that Ponga's imminent departure would not count against him at the selection table throughout the 2017 season.
"This is the competitive nature of the industry that we're in. I'm going to pick the best team possible and if Kalyn's part of that, he'll be in the team. Simple as that," said Green.
"There were obviously things that were important to Kalyn in weighing up his decision and they were the things that probably we couldn't match.
"We're disappointed but we've got a big picture in mind and a plan in place.
"We wanted to keep Kalyn, he's a good young talent obviously and he's been in our system for a little while now so disappointed to lose him but we'll move on.
"There's a larger plan in place from our point of view and we've certainly got other guys we need to retain also. We probably couldn't match the things that were important for Kalyn's decision."
Over the next 12 months the Cowboys coaching and recruitment staff will face the challenge of trying to retain Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo, a challenge that has been made somewhat simpler by the potential loss of Ponga.
Green also acknowledged that the re-signing of Lachlan Coote for a further two seasons helps to soften the blow regarding Ponga's departure.
"It certainly gave us some insurance either way. I'd hate to have seen 'Cootey' go and then find ourselves in the same position with Kalyn gone," said Green, who is heading into his fourth season as Cowboys head coach.
"Very happy with Cootey. He was on the verge of playing State of Origin, Kalyn's played two games so really happy that we are in the position we're in.
"It probably takes a little bit of pressure off trying to keep some of the other big name guys like Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo.
"Disappointed that Kalyn's potentially leaving us but we'll move on and we'll be right."
The more immediate concern for Green and his roster for next season is finding a replacement for prop Ben Hannant, who shocked the playing group by announcing that he would be retiring effective immediately.
Young props Patrick Kaufusi and Sam Hoare were among the group that returned for pre-season training this week and Green intimated that he will be patient in finding a suitable replacement for Hannant.
"We're in a good position in that we've got spots in our roster and we've got money in our cap. It's a good position to be in," Green said.
"Historically there are always guys that come onto the market between now and kick-off to the season.
"I'm really comfortable with the squad. We'll probably look to fill the front row position with Ben making the decision to retire but I'm pretty comfortable with where we're at in terms of spots in our roster and also money in our cap."