Newcastle fullback Kalyn Ponga is enjoying a rare fit off-season and says despite the cruel injury blow to Jayden Brailey, the Knights' spine is settling in well ahead of round one.
Speaking at this week's Fox League season launch, the new Foxtel ambassador talked to NRL.com about how the Knights were tracking ahead of their first trial game.
A rare full pre-season
"This is my first full pre-season (at Newcastle) and it's been awesome to be around the boys, to be fit the whole time," said Ponga, who missed the entirety of last summer as well as the first four rounds of 2021 with a shoulder injury.
"I'm definitely feeling it now in terms of confidence and just how close we are as a group heading into the trials. I'm definitely happy with the work we've done," he added.
Normally a player you'd expect to see wrapped in cotton wool, Ponga instead expected to get some minutes against Canterbury this Monday.
"I haven't spoken with Adzy (coach Adam O'Brien) yet about the plan but I think I'm playing this trial this Monday," Ponga said.
"I don't think I'll play the full game but for me I'm pretty excited to get out there. Just go hard for as long as I can before he takes me off."
Randall ready to own dummy-half role
Bitter blow for Brailey, huge chance for Randall
Co-captain and big-minute hooker Jayden Brailey's ruptured Achilles tendon is a huge blow for both Brailey and the Knights, who will miss his leadership as much as his performances, but Ponga was enthusiastic about the work understudy Chris Randall had put in over the summer.
"It's unfortunate to lose Jayden, he's such a big part of this team, his leadership and everything he brings will be missed," Ponga said.
"It's an opportunity though for Chris Randall who will step in at nine and start the season. It's a good opportunity for him, he's been working hard, you can really tell he'll take this opportunity.
"He's got it (to make it in the NRL), he's the fittest at our club, he's been working extra hard which is pleasing to see, you can tell he's not taking this for granted and really wants to make this opportunity his own.
"You see someone working that hard you're excited to play with them so I can't wait to see how he goes."
Brailey's injury still represents less disruption to the spine than what occurred last summer, with Ponga's absence, Mitchell Pearce breaking a thumb, Blake Green doing some of the pre-season then retiring mid-year leading into Jake Clifford's mid-season recruitment.
"Our nine jersey's cursed and we had people in and out last year, we couldn't really nail a solid spine until the back end of the year and once we did we went on a run and put ourselves in a position to win that final at the end," Ponga added.
"Every team goes through that, it's footy unfortunately, injuries happen, we're just lucky we've had a good period to really get to work and get a feel for each other."
Memorable games of 2021: Surging into seventh
Clifford and Clune settled in the halves
Despite an impressive summer from Phoenix Crossland, Ponga said Adam Clune had all-but won the chance to start the season in the No.7 jersey alongside Jake Clifford at five-eighth.
"It's good competition, you want that, you want everyone fighting for positions, healthy competition but I think it will be Cliffo and Clune leading into round one," Ponga said.
The Clifford-Clune-Randall combination is hardly an experienced one and Ponga knows there will be pressure on him to step up and lead the playmakers.
"This spine group hasn't been together, we've never played a game together so it's evening out that workload, all doing our role, knowing our job and executing it," he said.
"If there's a bit of finesse on top of that that's a bonus but if we can nail our roles that will go a long way."
Whether that extra leadership focus for Ponga becomes formalised is yet to be confirmed.
"I'm definitely going to be a big leader within the group but I'm not too sure if I'm captain yet," he said.
"It hasn't been announced but whether I am or whether I'm not I'm a leader, it's something I want to be among this group of men. It excites me, it's still a skill I'm developing and I'm really enjoying it."
Defence still the focus but attack needs to change
Club legend Andrew Johns has returned to the Hunter to assist the playmakers and Ponga was upfront about the attack needing to improve from last year, as much as the coach remains defence-oriented.
"Definitely (it needs to evolve); with our head coach attack's not a focus, defence wins games, but I think our attack last year let us down a little bit," Ponga said.
"We struggled, if we're being honest, in attack. We lost our way in games and never had a real structure to what we were doing. That’s been a focus this year, just building on certain things and everybody knowing their role."
Gagai wants to bring grand final feelings to Knights
Gagai's impact not to be underestimated
Test and Origin back Dane Gagai returns for a second spell at the club after a stint with the Rabbitohs and the chance to have him on one side of the field and Bradman Best on the other could help get the best out of both players – and Ponga.
"A lot of people were saying I need to pass the ball to Braddy," Ponga laughed.
"There's two sides to a field so to have him as a strike weapon on one and Braddy on the other will only help our attack."
Ponga just missed Gagai at club level when he joined the Knights but has since suited up with him for Queensland.
"He was around when I was signing then that off-season he left but I obviously played with him in Origin," Ponga added.
"I've seen what he's like on the field and he's elite. He's been awesome for us around the boys, around the playing group, especially the younger boys, he's taking that experienced role in terms of teaching them what to do and what it takes to win."
Watch every game of the 2022 NRL pre-season live and ad-break free during play — exclusive to Fox League and available on Kayo Sports.