Ponga gets his chance to shine
They may have been decimated by injuries and suspension but former Cowboys great Brent Tate says the opportunity for Kalyn Ponga to show his full array of extraordinary talent is something North Queensland fans should be excited by.
Ahead of their clash with the Sea Eagles on Saturday night the Cowboys are counting a heavy cost for their golden point win over the Broncos last week with Matt Scott (ACL), Lachlan Coote (calf) and Antonio Winterstein (broken arm) suffering serious injuries.
Add to that the loss of reigning Dally M Player of the Year Jason Taumalolo with a two-game suspension for a shoulder charge and the depth of the Cowboys is being tested at unlike any other time during Paul Green's tenure as coach.
With Coote looking at a month on the sidelines Green has turned to 18-year-old Ponga to fill the vacant fullback role for the first time in his young NRL career and Tate writes in this week's issue of Big League that it could herald the arrival of a genuine superstar.
"As much as I've tried not to talk him up too much, he is a special kid and he can do things you can't teach," says Tate, who played 67 of his 229 career games for the Cowboys.
"It's going to be exciting to sit back and watch him. He's the type of player who attracts crowds because he has that x-factor, so I hope he gets a good go."
A schoolboy sporting sensation in a number of different sports, Ponga made his NRL debut in the elimination final against the Broncos in last year's finals series and playing in the unfamiliar position on the wing ran for 177 metres and showcased his lightning-fast footwork.
In 21 games in the under-20s competition last season he scored 12 tries and ran for more than 140 metres on 11 occasions and was signed to a rich four-year deal by the Knights starting in 2018.
But if Ponga is to electrify the crowd at 1300SMILES Stadium he will need to do so on the back of a forward pack missing two of its most influential contributors.
Taumalolo's suspension on the back of the season-ending injury to Scott leaves the Cowboys looking decidedly short in the middle, an area Tate says they could ill afford injuries at the start of the season.
"If you asked me where North Queensland couldn't afford any injuries, I would've said in the front row," Tate says.
"Scott is a big loss. It's not just his experience, it's that feeling in the dressing room when you see a player of his calibre in your team – that stuff you can't put a measure on. It's almost like a safety blanket has gone.
"Coming back from this injury is going to be Scott's biggest challenge, but you never write off a champion – and that's what he is."
The Round 3 issue of Big League with features on Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Nathan Cleary, Dylan Napa and the Mata'utia boys is on sale now from newsagents, supermarkets and at the ground. Digital version also available via www.zinio.com, Apple iTunes and Google Play.