Lockyer: Why refreshed Ponga will take Nines by storm

Australian selector Darren Lockyer says Kalyn Ponga can reboot his enjoyment for the game and push his claims for Kangaroos selection at next month's World Cup Nines.

The 21 year-old Knights star had a blistering start to 2019 but Lockyer said Newcastle’s late-season woes on and off the field appeared to take its toll on Ponga.

Lockyer said the tournament at Bankwest Stadium on October 18-19 would be a haven for players such as Ponga, who is yet to play for Australia, and would give coach Mal Meninga the opportunity to earmark future Kangaroos.

"Guys with good footwork and speed are going to have a lot more opportunity because of the space in the defensive lines," Lockyer told NRL.com.

"That is why Kalyn Ponga, with his footwork and speed, should see a mountain of space. I think that maybe at the back-end of the season at Newcastle, with everything that was going on, it looked like he wasn’t enjoying his footy.

"It is one of those competitions where he could find some really good form and start enjoying his footy. I’m not saying he was hating his footy but I just think it was a tough end of the year post-Origin and this is a great opportunity to get him back enjoying it again.

"Mal [Meninga] is keen to develop the young kids and this is a good pathway into playing the 13-man game and an opportunity for Mal to work with guys that he hasn’t in the past."

Ponga’s game contains all the ingredients to be a success at the Nines.

"When he is at his best he is taking calculated risks and they are coming off. I think people love to watch him play because he is entertaining and because of his footwork and speed," Lockyer said.

"He also likes to fire that right to left bullet pass. While the Nines is new at this level it is something that can provide entertainment and X factor."

Players with dancing feet and tackle breaking ability are set to shine at the tournament which is why New Zealand star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck looms as a game breaker.

"Roger finished the season well for the Warriors and has great footwork and speed so he is going to be a handful,” Lockyer said.

"At the Warriors, Roger is a great example of how when you give someone the captaincy they take a lot of pride in their team’s performance and their own. He is looking to be the best every week. He is a competitor and a leader by example and will provide entertainment in this tournament."

Lockyer said there would be a vital role for forwards with mobility, stamina and ball skills at the Nines.

That is why he said Roosters lock Victor Radley and South Sydney's Cameron Murray were so suited to the format.

Meninga has said players that contest the NRL grand final would be rested, but on the basis that Radley and Murray were available Lockyer said they could shine for Australia.

"Murray has probably got the best play-the-ball in the game so with the space and  the momentum he provides the gaps will be everywhere," Lockyer said.

Rabbitohs lock Cameron Murray.
Rabbitohs lock Cameron Murray. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

"Cam Murray can be dynamite creating that foundation of ruck speed. Then there is Radley who has a good passing game and is such a tough competitor. Both those guys are good laterally, defensively and with the football."

Broncos forward Tevita Pangai jnr, who has represented Tonga at Test level, could be in Tonga's selection frame but has one match left on his NRL suspension and it is yet to be determined by judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew if that will be served at this tournament.

The same will apply for Parramatta's Fijian winger Maika Sivo, who is facing a shoulder charge ban.

"Tevita can be dynamic at that level with his footwork and size, like [Jason] Taumalolo, but on top of that he has an unbelievable offload," Lockyer said.

"The footy looks like a tennis ball in his hand. The amount of times he gets a late offload away is remarkable. There can be three or four defenders in a tackle and while he is still standing he plonks it  over the defenders’ heads. The Nines need players who create opportunities and there are none better than Pangai."

Lockyer predicted the tournament would be embraced the public.

"It is a great entertainment product. We get to see a lot of players in the 13-man game have to play conservative and not take the risks that they would like to, but this game is conducive for those players to just play footy," Lockyer said.

 

For ticket and travel packages for the Downer Rugby League World Cup 9s Sydney 2019, head to nrl.com/tickets.