How Newcastle prised Ponga from Cowboys' long-term plans
The Cowboys have run one of the game's best football programs for the best part of a decade. They rarely miss their targets.
They managed to lure Johnathan Thurston from Canterbury in 2005. And, perhaps in an even greater reflection of the club's status, they've managed to keep him there for 14 seasons amid relentless raids from rival clubs.
Add Jason Taumalolo, Michael Morgan and Matt Scott and you're left with a pretty impressive list.
So as Kalyn Ponga returns from injury this weekend in time to head back to Townsville for the first time since leaving North Queensland, it begs the question as to how the Newcastle wonder kid became the one that got away for the Cowboys.
Before understanding why Ponga left Thurston and the Cowboys to join the three-time wooden spooners, you have to understand the values of his family.
"Football is not our priority," his father, Andre Ponga, said.
"Anyone who knows us, they know footy has always been a B option in our minds. Sport in general for that matter. Kalyn gave up an opportunity to play schoolboy rugby for Australia because he wanted to repay the faith of his school for offering him a scholarship.
"Our priority was finding out what opportunities were outside of footy. Like a university life in Newcastle. The priority at the Cowboys was different. They are a more senior side. A lot of the players have their own families. They are an established team. Kalyn needed to take his own path around other young fellas. The priorities and the people at the Knights suited Kalyn."
The family was of the opinion that for Ponga to realise his potential as an athlete and as an adult, a change of environment was worth exploring.
There was a feeling the attention and focus Ponga needed during his development years didn't quite match up with Paul Green's coaching methods despite those same methods leading the club to its first premiership in 2015.
"For us it's not about him winning a premiership," Andre said.
"As a mum and dad it was about putting him in an environment where we felt our son would be the best possible person. I think the best way to put it is that Greeny is an adult's coach and Browny is a good mentor for the young ones coming through. That's not saying Greeny isn't a good coach. He's a very good coach. But he was used to having more experienced players like JT and Matt Scott.
"For Kalyn's development he needed a different environment for him to discover himself and express himself. That's why Kalyn was actually going to AFL in May, 2016. At the time we felt as though we'd had enough of the rugby league fraternity. We pushed for him to be in a positive environment, which is why we thought the Brisbane Lions were a perfect fit."
You ask some at the Cowboys and they'll tell you Kalyn left for the money. You ask Newcastle the same question and you get a completely different answer. That's rugby league for you.
But it's hard to believe this switched-on talent, who now has the world at his feet, based his decision solely around a five-year, $3 million deal.
Perhaps it was in relation to some stern words from Green aimed at the rookie after the club's preliminary final loss to Cronulla in his debut season? Was that the trigger that led to the eroding relationship between father and club?
Perhaps it was the challenge of helping Newcastle rise from the cellar? Maybe it was the guarantee of the No.1 jersey when he arrived?
Regardless, it wasn't because the Cowboys were oblivious to the talent that was blossoming under their nose.
Recruitment manager Clint Zammit and football manager Peter Parr flew to Sydney at the end of 2016 to meet Ponga's new manager, Wayde Rushton.
The club verbally offered him a three-year deal of substantial proportions given he'd only played two NRL games.
His manager asked for a four-year deal and the next day the club obliged and notified Rushton of their willingness to extend the deal. They even offered to fly and accommodate him in Townsville to finalise the deal.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, who followed up the original email with numerous phone calls and texts, the next conversation they had was when they found out Ponga had agreed to join the Knights.
"We did the best we could and put forward an offer with as much money as we could afford," Parr told NRL.com.
"People somehow think that we didn't know he was a special talent. We got him when he was young and groomed him. We understood what he was capable of. We thought our offer reflected what we thought of him."
North Queensland knew they were in for a fight when midway through 2016, before Ponga had a single Telstra Premiership game to his name, he turned down the club's offer to extend his contract 18 months out from its expiry.
"We spoke to his dad, Andre," Cowboys football manager Peter Parr said.
"We made an offer to extend him but he wanted to get an agent and do it professionally and responsibly. Who am I to argue with that? It was the way he wanted to do business and in a lot of ways it made sense."
This is when you need to appreciate the family's way of thinking to understand their thought process.
Ponga didn't have a manager, nor was he in a rush to appoint one.
"Why would I give a stranger our son not knowing what their values and morals are," Andre said.
"We were being pressured (by managers). We had managers waiting for my wife outside of toilets after games to talk to her about him. We just thought 'no one's going to get him if you're going to act like that'. We fought hard as a family to get him where he is."
Thurston developed a close bond with Ponga. So it goes without saying that Thurston, who had sacrificed so much over the years to stay with the Cowboys, wasn't pleased with the outcome of the negotiations.
"Yeah, disappointed and surprised," Thurston told NRL.com earlier in the year.
"I thought he had a really good opportunity over the next couple of years to learn a lot with the playing group that we have and the coaching staff that we have. It could have really propelled his game to new heights."
Thurston, who was with the Kangaroos on the Four Nations tour of the United Kingdom when Ponga made his decision, contacted the then teenager and let his frustrations be known.
"He just said he wanted me to stay and be up there at the club," Ponga said.
"Obviously learning off him was a big one. I think he understood I came down here for an opportunity as well. He was obviously filthy that I was leaving and what not, but I think he understands."
Green doesn't like talking about Ponga. Probably sick of everyone asking the same question.
At least that's the impression NRL.com got when earlier in the year when he was asked how he felt watching Ponga work his magic for the Knights.
"We had a huge opinion of Kalyn," Green said.
"We tried to keep him but we couldn't. We couldn't fit everyone in unfortunately. We would have loved to have kept him but I'm happy for him. He's a good kid. We knew he was a talented player. I'm happy for him."
So how did the Knights, a club in the middle of the most unsuccessful period in its history, convince Ponga and his family that it would become an environment worth taking a chance on?
"I had to actually try and convince our CEO at the time, Matt Gidley, that he was worth the money I wanted to spend," Knights football manager Darren Mooney said.
"I told him 'this bloke is going to be a superstar'."
So the Knights, knowing how close the Ponga family is, flew Kalyn, his mother, father and sister to Newcastle for a weekend in November in 2016.
They organised a dinner at coach Nathan Brown's house with Dane Gagai, Gidley and Mooney's family all turning up for Tanya Brown's famous butter chicken.
It's there they began selling the dream that Ponga admits first sounded like a nightmare.
"I didn't want to sign with the Knights," Kalyn Ponga told NRL.com earlier in the year.
"When Dad put down the Knights contract in front of me, I just looked at where they were then. They were at the bottom of the ladder. That's all I really saw."
The day after the gathering at Brown's house, Mooney and Danny Buderus took Ponga, his father and manager to the Hunter Valley for a round of golf to continue to sell the vision of a town crying out for a footballing hero.
Not a bad play from the Knights considering Ponga was the New Zealand under 13 golf champion.
"We knew we needed the family to want to come down," Mooney said.
"We needed them all to want to be here."
Buderus was quite influential in convincing Ponga, but he wasn't the only Knights legend that Mooney and Brown called upon.
Andrew and Matthew Johns would make phone calls to Ponga in the ensuing days, leaving the young fullback in no doubt as to where his future lay.
"We had to contain him and tell him not to be too excited," Andre recalled.
"There was still a lot of work after that meeting. He was ready to sign but we had to tell him that there was still a process to be played out."
One of the huge factors, outside of the lifestyle and family benefits of moving to Newcastle, was the guarantee that the No.1 jersey would be his when he arrived. The Cowboys were in no such position to do so given the form of Lachlan Coote at the time.
"Greeny had indicated to him he would be our long-term fullback, eventually," Parr said.
"We had what we thought was a good career path mapped out for him. We felt we were in a good position to bring him along without exposing him too quickly. But no doubt he was earmarked to be our long-term fullback."
The path that Newcastle showed him had nowhere near as many obstacles to overcome in the short term.
"It was huge, one of the main reasons why I signed," Ponga said.
"I just wanted to play regular footy ... I looked at where [Newcastle] were and kind of saw where they can be and the pathway and future I could see myself in. That's what I made my decision on."
When Ponga agreed to join the Knights, it was fresh off their second wooden spoon in as many years. In the next 12 months, while waiting mostly in the lower grades at the Cowboys to join the Knights, the club would make it a hat-trick of wooden spoons. "Kalyn took a leap of faith," Brown said.
What started as a sales pitch to spend overs on a virtually untested talent now looks like being the buy of the decade.
Matthew Johns saw it coming before a ball was even kicked this year.
"What Kalyn Ponga is about to do in the next 12 months is going to blow people away," he told NRL.com.
And indeed he has. Whatever it is the Knights paid for him is far less than the million-plus dollars he would demand if he hit the open market at the end of the year.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they'll have to live with the constant reminder of what could have been. Just like the Bulldogs did when the Cowboys poached Thurston all those years ago.
"He's just one that got away," Andre Ponga said.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.