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Busted nose, 'glint in the eye': Secret to Ponga's Cronulla carve up

Kalyn Ponga finished with a broken nose, three tries, 15 tackle busts and 222 running metres.

But his ruthless carve up of Cronulla started with what Adam O'Brien described as a "little glint in the eye" that revitalises Newcastle's hopes of their first home semi-final since Andrew Johns was pulling on the boots.

To a man the Knights' playmakers were a class above in Friday's 38-10 shellacking.

Kurt Mann produced two try assists from hooker, Mitch Pearce played through pain and produced some big moments while Mason Lino took some significant strides at five-eighth in his second game of the season.

But it was Ponga who reeled off one of the best individual 80-minutes of 2020, propelling the Knights into sixth place with three games of the regular season remaining.

Match Highlights: Knights v Sharks

If they can hang onto fifth or sixth Newcastle will host its first finals match since Johns was running rings around oppositions in 2006.

Ponga showed shades of the Eighth Immortal's famed toughness against Cronulla, copping a broken nose from an accidental whack by Brayden Trindall, and then a shoulder charge to the head from Chad Townsend soon after.

O'Brien didn't miss a beat when asked for his favourite aspect of Ponga's performance.

“How tough he is,” O’Brien said.

“He gets lots of raps, and rightfully so, for how talented he is but he is a tough kid. For what he cops, and he cops it every week, they’re looking to take his head off and get stuck into him, and he just keeps fighting the whole way.

“I’m really proud of him. He's only a 22-year-old kid with a heap of talent but he's bloody tough.”

Asked at what point he can sniff a five-star showing from his No.1, O'Brien pointed to that telling hour leading into kick-off.

"He's consistent with his training so he's the same during the week. But I can tell pre-game. There's a little glint in the eye there that tells me he's got his head on. That was there tonight."

For his part, opposing coach John Morris would "like a dollar for every time his name was mentioned this week."

Ponga's first try when scores were still at 4-all, cutting through some flimsy Sharks defence from a Lino inside ball, was one Cronulla had anticipated all week, yet could do less than nothing to stop.

"It was a nightmare," Morris said.

Newcastle continue to fire as To'a grabs a double

"The play where he comes back on the inside, it's set play they've done all throughout the year. They scored against the Wests Tigers with it.

"We looked at it in the preview, and then they pulled our pants down on it. He had a blinder tonight Kalyn and showed how important he is to the Knights, we didn't handle him well at all."

Newcastle's bounce back from a horror 36-6 loss to the Warriors sets the scene for a critical clash with the Roosters next Saturday night.

O'Brien anticipates cavalry in the form of Daniel Saifiti (knee), Edrick Lee (arm) and Sione Mata'utia (ankle) could all be onboard for the SCG trip.

And should the Knights make serious inroads with their first finals run in seven seasons, the 'honesty session' O'Brien called in the wake of that Warriors loss could prove telling.

"The players sparked it. It started on Monday," O'Brien said of their stark form turnaround.

"They were really honest during the week about some preparation. They gave some coaches feedback so we were all in it. But really pleased with the way we started tonight.

"I could tell that there was a nervous energy in the dressing rooms beforehand and I think staff were in that as well. Everyone was a little bit nervous."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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