Ponga is not Maroons' only babe in the woods
Kalyn Ponga may still be a 'kid' in rugby league terms – in his first full season of NRL football and tossed into the Origin arena after just 24 first-grade appearances.
But he doesn't come close to being the babe in the woods when it comes to State of Origin debutants.
That honour looks like remaining ith Ben Ikin, known more to younger league fans as the host of Fox Sports NRL 360 program.
Ikin had played just four top-grade games, when he was plucked from oblivion to the Queensland side of 1995 that had been torn apart by defections to the News Limited-spawned Super League rebel competition.
That means Ikin holds the double honour of being the youngest debutant of all time at 18 years and 83 days, and also the least experienced.
The circumstance was unique.
With hundreds of players signing weeks earlier to the proposed breakaway competition (which the courts delayed happening until 1997), the Maroons stocks were barren.
Broncos players like Allan Langer, Steve Renouf, Kevin and Kerrod Walters, Michael Hancock, Willie Carne, Brad Thorn, Julian O'Neill, Andrew Gee and Darren Smith were ruled ineligible for selection along with Canberra's Steve Walters and Mal Meninga.
Ikin, on a $2000-a-year contract in his first year out of high school from renowned sports academy Palm Beach Currumbin, had actually been picked in the Queensland under-19s side. They were to play the curtain-raise but Maroons selectors pondered over how they would fill the interchange bench for Origin I to be played at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Chief selector Arthur Beetson told rookie coach Paul Vautin, who had been handed the job after Wayne Bennett, of a Gold Coast kid he had a big opinion of who was the only utility back he could think of.
It's a well-told story how, after being selected, Ikin walked into the team hotel in Brisbane, hopped in the lift with Vautin and winger Matt Sing and was told by Vautin that if he wanted to get some autographs he had to wait in the foyer.
Ikin, wearing T-shirt and board shorts, responded: "But I'm Ben Ikin; I'm in your team."
While the level-headed Ponga shows every indication he will handle his rise into the Origin spotlight, Ikin admits he wasn't ready for his. Nor did he consider what a life-changing opportunity it was.
"I was so young, I just didn't get it," Ikin said. "When you're that age, you're just in the moment, you're not processing at all."
The unfashionable Maroons, against a Blues side that retained 10 internationals who had toured with the 1994 Kangaroos, completed State of Origin's greatest fairy tale in winning the series 3-0, the first by just 2-0 from a Wayne Bartrim goal in Origin's lowest scoring match.
Ikin came off the bench in all three games and scored the last try of the series, at Suncorp Stadium, in the 24-16 win that completed the most unlikely whitewash ether state has recorded.
What is little known is that while Ikin returned to the Gold Coast a hero – it almost destroyed his career.
His weight ballooned by 14kg to 98kg in a few months as he lived the life of a 'celebrity', accepting free drinks vouchers when attending nightclubs with his mates and enjoying his new-found notoriety.
As a consequence, he finished the season on the reserves bench in second grade, after just six first grade games (as a run-on player).
"I hadn't been schooled well enough to handle that side of professional sport," Ikin recalled.
"I was enjoying the fruits too much of what State of Origin bought. People at the club tried to pull me into line but I didn't get it.”
Ikin left to join North Sydney the next season and an attitude-shift saw him go on to a credible career of 150 NRL games, 17 matches for Queensland and two Tests.
Origin has been littered with whiz-kid stories.
Bronco winger Willie Carne was 21 and had played only six first grade games when he was brought into the Queensland side for game three in 1990. Current Blues coach Brad Fittler was 18 with 12 games for Penrith to his credit when he debuted in the previous match of the 1990 series.
Cameron Smith had played 18 games when he was called up for the first of his 42 Origin appearances for Queensland in 2003.
Brent Tate, three months after his 20th birthday, had played only 14 NRL games, six of them from the bench, when he was called into the series decider of 2002 at ANZ Stadium in Sydney – a year ahead of his Queensland under-18s teammate Smith.
And 12 days after the drawn third Origin match, best known for Dane Carlaw's incredible try in the dying moments, Tate debuted for Australia against Great Britain in Sydney off the bench – a 64-10 thrashing of the Brits.
He was more fortunate than Ikin in that he had Broncos mentor Bennett to monitor his progression and was surrounded by several Origin and Test teammates at club level. His brother-in-law Steve Price was a Maroons teammate too.
Yet Tate says it was the pressure he put on himself, in having the reputation as a young Origin player, that he sparred with the most.
"It was so unexpected but I was just so young and excited about it all, I just got into camp and didn't feel overawed. I just rode the wave," Tate say.
"Nerves never hit me until I ran out off the bench in the second half, and the game was in the balance and it hit me. I thought 'Holy shit, I'm am playing Origin!'."
Tate says it was his fifth series before he felt he truly belonged in a Queensland jersey as he struggled with living up to the expectations until then.
"I felt the pressure of being an Origin player, that's for sure. Being so young when you start you feel you have to live up to the expectations around you and you put pressure on yourself.
"I felt that pressure probably because I didn't play as well as I felt I should have at Origin level for a while. I didn't feel I hit my straps and belonged there until the 2006 series; that was when felt I was truly good enough to play at that level.
"I guess I handled it Okay though because I kept playing for Queensland. But I can see how you can get lost in being overawed by such a quick rise," Tate said.
"I was really lucky I had Wayne as a coach. He was really aware of that stuff and such a good mentor in making sure you kept your feet on the ground and was not getting ahead of yourself."
Below is a list of inexperienced Origin debutants – in terms of games – since the vast majority of eligible players' experience was exclusively in the NRL/ARL competition.
Ben Ikin – 4 (1995)
Willie Carne – 6 (1990)
Less Kiss – 12 (1986)
Brett Dallas – 13 (1993)
Brent Tate – 14 (2002)
Matt Scott – 14 (2006)
Carl Webb – 15 (2001)
Cameron Smith – 18 (2003)
Chris Beattie – 18 (2001)
Jacob Lilyman – 19 (2006)
Willie Tonga – 20 (2004)
Kerrod Walters – 20 (1989)
Steve Renouf – 21 (1991)
Martin Lang – 21 (1998)
Paul Hauff – 21 (1991)
Mark Coyne – 21 (1990)
Coen Hess – 22 (2017)
Greg Inglis – 22 (2006)
Adrian Lam – 22 (1995)
Brad Fittler – 12 (1990)
Trent Barrett – 12 (1997)
Jim Leis – 12 (1980)
Brad Izzard – 13 (1982)
Will Hopoate – 15 (2011)
Lindsay Johnston – 15 (1983)
Paul McGregor – 19 (1992)
Ken Nagas – 19 (1994)
John Hopoate – 20 (1995)
(list courtesy of David Middleton, League Information Services)
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