Newcastle Knights recruit Kalyn Ponga is thrilled with his new club’s recruitment drive after initially fearing they would struggle to land high-profile targets.
Ponga signed a year in advance of the 2018 campaign and he could be forgiven for having been concerned as the Knights missed out on several high-profile free agents en route to a third-successive wooden spoon.
Brisbane-bound centre Jack Bird was first to knock back the club, before Cowboys prop Matt Scott and Storm forward Dale Finucane followed suit.
Newcastle’s only Origin representative – Dane Gagai – then announced his departure to South Sydney in June.
The tide turned mid-season when former Queensland forward Aidan Guerra was announced as the club’s second signing, along with promising talent Connor Watson and Broncos pair Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese.
“I’m not going to lie, I was nervous,” Ponga told NRL.com.
“But I knew my signing was early and was confident in who they would sign after [that].
“That was the tough thing, they wanted to get a big name early like a Jack Bird. If they got him a lot of players would have followed but in saying that they’ve done well.
“Connor (Watson) will be a good running half, Tau (Moga) in the centres is a familiar face for me, and a couple of experienced forwards.”
Born in the West Australian coastal town of Port Hedland, Ponga is used to moving around and expects to settle in at Newcastle smoothly.
“It’s a big move for all of us, not only for me, but my family,” he said.
“It’s a bit like Townsville, everything is close. We are all looking forward to it.”
Ponga, who started pre-season training with the Knights on Monday, insists his development has not been hindered despite the disrupted season that followed his decision to leave the Cowboys.
He found himself on the outer with North Queensland coach Paul Green after signing a lucrative four-year deal.
The Cowboys knocked back Newcastle’s request for Ponga’s an early release leading into the 2017 season and the prodigy was viewed as a fullback only when Green needed to cover for injuries throughout the year. That restricted him to just seven games as Javid Bowen and rookie flyer Gideon Gela-Mosby were the preferred choices.
The 19-year-old insisted there were no hard feelings towards Green.
Ponga revealed he had spoken to Green before departing the club, but left him alone during the back end of the finals campaign.
“He’s had a tough year,” Ponga said.
“It’s been pretty full-on for him and I think he did exceptionally well.
“Being around camp and watching the boys prepare and hold themselves against a lot of adversity – it was a great learning experience.
“Even when Johnno (Johnathan Thurston) and Matt Scott got injured I still felt I had the experienced leaders in the side I could look up to and learn off.”
Ponga went on to be named in the under-20s team of the year at season’s end and watched as the Cowboys reached the NRL decider.
“I hope [I have improved], it’s hard to measure whether I have but I enjoyed my footy this year and that was the most important thing,” Ponga said.
“If I can take that enjoyment into next year it will go a long way.”