Newcastle coach Nathan Brown expects Kalyn Ponga to play against Manly-Warringah at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday but is prepared to grant the young superstar compassionate leave to grieve his cousin’s death.
The 2018 RLPA Players’ Champion and his family flew to New Zealand on Tuesday after the sudden death of his father Andre’s niece, who the Newcastle Herald reported was in Newcastle last month to help celebrate Ponga’s 21st birthday.
Her funeral service was scheduled for Thursday and Ponga is booked to return to Australia on Friday morning in time for the team’s final training run, which has been pushed back to the afternoon to accommodate his circumstances.
After speaking with Andre Ponga on Wednesday, Brown said Kalyn was determined to play against the Sea Eagles but was under no pressure from team-mates or coaching staff.
“It’s obviously a very difficult situation for the family, and it’s very close to home. The whole family is obviously quite upset, as we’d all expect,” Brown said.
“We’ve been told to expect ‘KP’ will be home in the morning and will have a light run tomorrow afternoon, but if something happened and that changed, the club would be very supportive of that.
Knights v Sea Eagles - Round 5
“Andre and KP and the whole Ponga family are quite aware that if KP needs to stay in New Zealand, we’re very supportive, but if he’s happy to come home we’re more than happy to have him play.
“The family has travelled around quite a lot over the journey, from Perth to New Zealand, to North Queensland and Newcastle, so they’ve moved around a bit together … and they are a very, very close family.
“Sometimes football has to take a back seat and if that was the case this weekend, we’re very supportive as a club, but as it turns out, I believe Kalyn is keen to play.”
If Ponga doesn't play, Brown indicated Connor Watson would take his place at fullback after the former Roosters utility proved his fitness at an opposed session on Wednesday.
Watson, Ponga’s house-mate, started the season at fullback but has missed Newcastle’s past two games because of a knee injury suffered in their 16-14 loss to Penrith on March 23.
Even if Ponga does take his place at the back, Watson will replace Kurt Mann in the interchange rotation. Mann has been ruled out because of an undisclosed injury he has carried for several weeks.
“Connor’s fit again now, so that’s great, and if Connor comes into that role, we know he’ll do a good job for us,” Brown said.
“Kurt carried an injury into last week’s game and played with it so at this stage, from the information we received yesterday, he was very doubtful … and I’d be surprised if he was to play.”
Back-rower Sione Mata’utia is battling a shoulder injury and will need to convince Brown of his fitness at training on Friday.
Mitch Barnett is tipped to be recalled to the run-on side if Mata’utia is ruled out, and veteran Aidan Guerra is another option. Josh King would be the likely replacement on the bench.
Former Broncos Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese were named as extra reserves but Brown wants them to establish fitness and form in the Canterbury Cup NSW before returning to the NRL squad.
Brown: Family first for Ponga
Brown rated Mata’utia a 50-50 chance of lining up against the Sea Eagles.
“It’s one of those things where if he’s 100 per cent, he’s fine, but if it’s 90 per cent he’s not fine, so he can’t play with the problem,” Brown said.
“It’s something that needs to be 100 per cent right, so at this stage I’d say he’s doubtful.”