Newcastle coach Nathan Brown is certain Kalyn Ponga’s supreme skills and desire to be the best will ensure his transition from fullback to five-eighth is ultimately a success.
The prodigiously talented Ponga, who as a custodian finished second in 2018 Dally M Medal voting and was judged by his peers as RLPA Players’ Champion, is one NRL game into his new role.
Partnering skipper and halfback Mitchell Pearce, 20-year-old Ponga guided the Knights to a 14-8 victory over Cronulla last Friday but was not the dominant figure as he was on so many occasions in his break-out season last year.
Ponga and Pearce get another chance to work on their combination against Penrith in Newcastle on Saturday, as Brown sticks with them in the halves and Connor Watson at fullback.
“There’s been a lot of five-eighths go to fullback or fullbacks go to five-eighth this year,” Brown told a media conference after Newcastle’s final training session on Friday.
“We saw a game last night [between the Rabbitohs and Dragons] where there were two five-eighths who have played fullback, and one’s playing fullback, and it obviously generates plenty of talk.
“We saw Jack Wighton play five-eighth [for Canberra] last week and he’s been at fullback for four years, so there’s a lot of shuffling in this position at the moment.
“The key is, does the group want it to work and does Kalyn want it to work at the end of the day, and that gets a big tick on both fronts. The buy-in is good from the playing group and Kalyn really wants it to work, so it will work over time.”
Knights v Panthers - Round 2
Former Knights five-eighth Matthew Johns is one of several commentators who, for now, would prefer to see Ponga remain at fullback where he has more time, space and opportunities to attack and is not required to defend in the front line.
Brown expected opposition teams to target the gifted Queensland Origin representative but that would only free up Pearce and other ball-players to take charge.
“At the end of the day, one of the things that excited Kalyn about going to five-eighth is that he actually likes tackling … but like Matty’s saying, there has to be a common sense factor to it too,” he said.
“Kalyn’s No.1 asset to the team is obviously he’s an outstanding offensive player, and if he goes chasing too many tackles, that can knock him around a little.
“At the end of the day, Kalyn’s going to learn some lessons in the front line, which is very different and he’s learning quite well and he’s a good learner.
“There’s going to be days where he gets through a fair bit more work than others but I think he’ll be really, really smart about it and he’ll learn through experience when to do it and when not to do it.”
Brown believes Ponga is wise enough and talented enough to have the same impact on both sides of the ball as champion former halfbacks Andrew Johns and Allan Langer did during their illustrious careers.
“Those blokes, when games needed changing and turning on the back of defence, they chased kicks and got to marker and did two or three in a row,” Brown said.
“Kalyn is a winning player. He wants to be the best he can be.
“Sometimes he will turn a game with his defence, and he showed that the other day. That was a tough, defensive game, and he put himself in there.
“I still remember Alfie Langer, playing against him, how he would turn the game with his defence and his kick-and-chase game. That’s not what Alfie was in the team for, or what Kalyn’s in this team for, but sometimes he will do it.
““What me and Matty agree on, ‘KP’ is a high-end quality talent – he’s a high achiever – and those blokes generally learn much quicker than the ones who aren’t.”
The Knights needed a late intercept try by winger Edrick Lee to defeat the Sharks in round one after failing to capitalise on try-scoring chances early in the game.
“We felt we created enough opportunities last week that we didn’t take. We put two over the line in the first 15 minutes and those things have a big bearing on the game,” Brown said.
“We were quite comfortable with where it’s all at. Obviously it’s something we want to improve over time but it’s the same with our defence, we’ve still got a fair bit of improvement there, we hope.”