Cowboys whizz kid happy to wait
Despite further enforcing his position as one of the game's best young players with a starring role at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines last weekend, Cowboys revelation Kalyn Ponga said he doesn't expect to the start the season in first grade.
The 18-year-old was at times unstoppable on the Eden Park turf, running in five tries and setting up several others as the chief playmaker of a North Queensland Nines side which also contained representative halves Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan.
Had the Cowboys not suffered a surprise exit from the competition in the quarter-finals, it's likely Ponga would have been right in the mix to be named the tournament's MVP, such was his impact in pool play.
But Ponga, who made his first two NRL Telstra Premiership appearances in last year's finals series, isn't letting the hype get to him and said he is happy to wait for his chance in the top grade.
"I just have to hopefully play good footy in the under-20s or wherever I get put and when my opportunity comes just take it as I did last year, with both hands," Ponga told NRL.com.
"I am not expecting much, when I get the opportunity I get the opportunity.
"I think last year I kind of learnt how to deal with playing both levels, and this will be good for me going back to under-20s.
"The challenge there will be for me to lead instead of being the younger fella in the team and following.
"I am looking forward to going back and it's a challenge week-in, week-out still, there's some good players in the comp."
But while Ponga was doubtful about his NRL chances to start the season, Cowboys teammate and joint-winner of the 2016 Dally M Award Jason Taumalolo held a different opinion.
"He is definitely a shot mate, someone of his calibre, he is just a weapon in attack," Taumalolo told NRL.com.
"He is still learning in defence, but I don't see why he can't fit into the 17.
"Where our coach will put him we don't know, but I definitely think he belongs in first grade."
After making his own NRL debut at just 17 years of age in 2010, Taumalolo experienced a similar journey to Ponga, with media attention and fan expectation a constant presence from a young age.
Now 23, Taumalolo said he was in awe of Ponga's mature approach, particularly given he has already penned a four-year deal with the Newcastle Knights from 2018.
"He is a good kid, guys like him seem to mature a lot easier which transfers onto the field and shows when he is playing," Taumalolo said.
"For Kalyn to be like that, he is level-headed and that is what you want from all the youngsters."
The fact that Ponga and fellow Nines Team of the Tournament member Gideon Gela-Mosby are far from assured an NRL spot this season also speaks volumes for the depth North Queensland have developed in their squad.
"It does [say plenty about the quality we have], Gideon is a try-scoring freak and it is always a privilege to play alongside guys like that," Taumalolo said.
"He will eventually get his shot in first grade and I am sure he will make the most of it."