How Ponga changed minds within two months
Former Cowboy James Tamou had already announced his departure to Penrith at the time but he felt like Kalyn Ponga made a huge mistake when he agreed to join the struggling Newcastle Knights 12 months before departing North Queensland.
Everyone knew Ponga had the potential to be a star at the Cowboys but there was debate about whether the 20-year-old had made the right call for his own personal development to join a club that had struggled for more than three seasons and were at rock bottom.
There were also questions at the time around the money Ponga was offered by the Knights – labelled at the time a risk and overs for a rookie player who had played just nine games.
With big money comes big expectations and Tamou – who joined the Panthers on a lucrative deal – admitted the weight of having to perform with the estimated price tag next to your name in the public sphere can be a downfall.
"I thought it was a questionable career decision for him and wasn't the only one who thought that, speaking to some of the boys. I feared it would stop his progress," Tamou told NRL.com.
"To make him a main signing there so early in his life with that pressure, you have to be a special talent to handle that. He could have waited and played with Johnathan Thurston for a couple more years and eased his way into it.
"It's definitely surprised me how quickly he's proved he is more than capable and has come out on top."
Worry no more – Ponga leads the current Dally M medal count after nine rounds of the Telstra Premiership and the conversation has now been flipped, with questions asked how the Cowboys could have let a player of his calibre go.
"It's no secret he's been touted a superstar and I've seen enough already in my books," Tamou said.
"I didn't think it would happen this quick, but it hasn't surprised me either. When I first saw him we all thought, who is this kid? I knew he was good, at the Cowboys he was breaking all sorts of records with sprinting and even power lifting – pound for pound.
"And he hasn't changed, a nice humble kid."
Panthers back-rower Viliame Kikau, who played with Ponga at the Cowboys in 2015, recalled how the Western Australian-born fullback had been hyped up so much at a young age it would have proved too much to handle for another player.
"We heard of him in newspapers and through the media before he arrived because he was playing rugby union in Brisbane," Kikau said of Ponga.
"For a young footy player who has been in that spotlight since a young age he's handled that well.
"He's not arrogant or anything like that. The Cowboys were lucky to get him when they did but couldn't hold onto him. Just a freakish player. He can do anything with ball."
It's no surprise Tamou, Kikau and the rest of the playing group at Penrith have spent the entire week yelling out Ponga's name at training ahead of Friday night's clash against Newcastle and a kid who possesses it all.
"He's always got a hand in most of their tries and we've had struggles with our kick chase throughout the year so we've got his name on our lips out there on the paddock," Tamou said.
"He's a key factor to wherever the ball goes. He's got help from the other recruits they've been able to buy but he's the key there, especially with Mitchell Pearce missing."