Ponga crowned 2018 RLPA Players' Champion

Newcastle fullback Kalyn Ponga has created history by becoming the youngest winner of the RLPA Players' Champion award.

The 20-year-old Knights star received the peer-voted award at the Players' Champion presentation at Doltone House in Sydney on Tuesday night and it signals the changing of the guard in rugby league, according to RLPA chief executive Ian Prendergast.

With premiership-winners and 300-game players of the calibre of Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Luke Lewis, Sam Thaiday and Chris Heighington leaving the game, the younger brigade led by the likes of Ponga, Cameron Munster and Nathan Cleary are stepping up.

The award began in 2004 to recognise excellence both on and off the field.

It's been quite a season for Newcastle's goal-kicking fullback.

In his 20 appearances for his new club, the former Cowboy produced six tries, 11 try assists, 12 line breaks and 140 tackle breaks. He also ran an average of 142 metres per game.

Those kind of statistics earned him a maiden Holden State of Origin series call-up for Queensland, playing game two off the bench and producing an eye-catching display.

But his emergence alongside other rising talent comes at a poignant time in the NRL.

"We have witnessed somewhat of a changing of the guard in 2018, with the emergence of young stars with plenty of character and a number of the game’s longest servants retiring," Prendergast said.

Ponga edged out a few other youngs stars from the list of finalists that included Storm five-eighth Cameron Munster, 23, Warriors skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 25, Sharks flyer Valentine Holmes, 23, and Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook, 27.

Previous winners include James Tedesco (2017), Jason Taumalolo (2016), Danny Buderus (2004) and Johnathan Thurston (2005, 2013-15). Thurston always said that in his list of awards won, he considered the RLPA trophy "the highest individual accolade a player can receive".

"It's incredible that at such a young age, Kalyn has already gained the recognition from his fellow players as the best performer in 2018," Prendergast said.

"Despite the Knights not making it through to the finals this season, Kalyn continued to put in dominant performances throughout in his first-year at the club.

"The RLPA membership have had their say and for a 20-year-old to be voted the best by his peers, it just shows what a prestigious talent the Newcastle custodian is.

"On behalf of the RLPA, I want to congratulate Kalyn and all other award recipients at tonight’s event."

The RLPA provided more than 500 contracted NRL players with a list of 64 players (four from each club) in contention for the established Players' Champion award and the recently introduced Players' 13 Dream Team.

The players voted for their champion picks on a 3-2-1 system based on their performance across the entire 2018 season.

Players were unable to vote for their teammates, while no points were deducted for serving suspensions.

St George Illawarra Dragons star Jason Nightingale received the Dennis Tutty Award for 2018,  recognising his contribution in the player wellbeing and education space.

Tutty, a former Balmain, Penrith and Australian player, was on hand to present Nightingale with the honour.

Australian Jillaroos star and captain of the Sydney Roosters WNRL side, Simaima Taufa, was recognised as the Elite Women’s Player of the Year for her strong World Cup campaign.

North Queensland powerhouse Jason Taumalolo continued the rise of Tonga in the international arena, edging out finalists from Australia, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea to be named Representative Player of the Year.

Perhaps one of the hottest contested awards of the night was Rookie of the Year, with Sydney Roosters hitman Victor Radley emerging with the most votes from his peers, ahead of Jamayne Isaako (Broncos), AJ Brimson (Titans), Rhyse Martin (Bulldogs) and Jesse Ramien (Sharks).

 

The Players' Champion: Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights)

The Players' 13 Dream Team: Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights), Valentine Holmes (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks), Latrell Mitchell (Sydney Roosters), Esan Marsters (Wests Tigers), Jamayne Isaako (Brisbane Broncos), Cameron Munster (Melbourne Storm), Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys), Andrew Fifita (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks), Damien Cook (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Melbourne Storm), Viliame Kikau (Penrith Panthers), Tariq Sims (St George Illawarra Dragons), Jake Trbojevic (Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles)

Rookie of the Year: Victor Radley (Sydney Roosters)

Dennis Tutty Award: Jason Nightingale (St George Illawarra Dragons)

Representative Player of the Year: Jason Taumalolo (Tonga)

Elite Women's Player of the Year: Simaima Taufa (Australian Jillaroos)

The '300 Club': Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys), Simon Mannering (New Zealand Warriors), Sam Thaiday (Brisbane Broncos), John Sutton (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Billy Slater (Melbourne Storm)

Indigenous Leadership & Excellence: Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys)

Johnathan Thurston and Jason Taumalolo at the RLPA Players' Champion awards.
Johnathan Thurston and Jason Taumalolo at the RLPA Players' Champion awards. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Pasifika Leadership & Excellence: Jason Nightingale (St George Illawarra Dragons)

NRL Academic Player of the Year: Dale Copley (Gold Coast Titans)

Women's Academic Player of the Year: Kody House (Brisbane Broncos)

NRL Academic Team of the Year: Aiden Tolman (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Isaac Liu (Sydney Roosters), Jason Bukuya (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks), Dunamis Lui (Canberra Raiders), Simon Mannering (New Zealand Warriors), Michael Morgan (North Queensland Cowboys), David Gower (Parramatta Eels), Korbin Sims (Brisbane Broncos), Ryley Jacks (Melbourne Storm), Cameron Murray (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Euan Aitken (St George Illawarra Dragons), Dale Copley (Gold Coast Titans), Kody House (Brisbane Broncos)

Experience the excitement of Finals footy this weekend. Get your tickets to week 2 of the 2018 NRL Telstra Premiership Finals Series