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'Authenticity is important': Ponga to stay true to himself

Kalyn Ponga knows how lucky he is to have Billy Slater as a mentor.

But, with every piece of invaluable advice he receives from his Queensland Maroons coach, Ponga also knows how important it is to remain his own man.

The Newcastle Knights skipper made his State of Origin debut in Game II, 2018, in awe of the man who wore the No.1 jersey at the time.

It was Slater’s last series as a player and Ponga, who came off the bench, saw just how hard he would have to work if he wanted to follow in his fellow fullback’s footsteps.

Four years on, Ponga now wears that No.1 jersey and already there are outside expectations that debutant coach Slater will have plenty of influence and a lot to say to the 24-year-old in the lead up to the series opener in Sydney on Wednesday.

But both men believe that no matter what, the key is for Ponga to stay true to himself and not to try to replicate Slater.

Kalyn Ponga on day one of Queensland Maroons camp. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL
Kalyn Ponga on day one of Queensland Maroons camp. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL

“Authenticity is important,” Ponga said.

“That what makes every single one of these players who they are. We have someone like Selwyn Cobbo and these other young players coming through and if they don’t express themselves in the way we know they can, they’re probably not here.

“I am here to learn and get as much out of it as I can in that sense, but I’m old enough to know what my game is and where I can improve and what I do well.

“I am fortunate enough to still (touch base) with Billy. I don’t like to hound people and be annoying, but I do really appreciate the time that he’s had for me (over the years). I just try to learn as much as I can.

“I’m not someone that texts him all the time but I’m fortunate enough that he texts me when he thinks I’ve got something to learn.

“I remember in 2018 I had a little bit of a conversation with him just about fullback stuff. I was young and probably didn’t know very much at all, to be honest. I’m older now, I’m not so shy, I can see the opportunity in front of me to learn and I’m definitely going to take that.”

Slater echoed Ponga’s sentiments in his press conference to announce his first Maroons team for 2022.

When pressed on whether he would be in Ponga’s ear, Slater said that while it was only natural he would have advice to pass on, he wouldn't overwhelm him.

“It’s important for Kalyn to be Kalyn … for Kalyn to work out how he likes to get the football, how he likes to play,” Slater said.

“It is a part of the game that I have a fair bit of experience and knowledge in and anywhere I can help Kalyn, I will. 

“We expect Kalyn to be at his best. We know what Kalyn is capable of. He’s a tough lad, a real leader, and footy is important to him, Queensland is important to him.”

Ponga and Slater in 2013, when Ponga played Cyril Connell Cup for Easts Tigers.
Ponga and Slater in 2013, when Ponga played Cyril Connell Cup for Easts Tigers.

This will be the fourth Origin series Ponga has been involved in, with the showdown at Accor Stadium his fifth appearance for Queensland.

Even with that experience, and being the incumbent fullback, Ponga said he was nervous ahead of receiving Slater’s call to confirm he was in the team.

In his first year as skipper at Newcastle, the Knights have managed just four wins from 12 matches. But Ponga said he knew he’d done the best he could to put his name forward for consideration.

Ponga and Slater at Queensland Maroons training. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL
Ponga and Slater at Queensland Maroons training. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL

“I was pretty nervous… when you think you’ve made it, that’s when you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself,” Ponga said.

“I wanted to earn this jersey and I’m glad that I’m here.

“I thought I’ve been playing good enough footy to be here and I’m pretty confident in myself and the form I’ve had over the last few weeks leading into this camp. I’ve been speaking to (Slater) over the last few weeks about different things and I’m excited to be in this camp and continue to do that. I want to learn as much as I can.”

Main image: Kalyn Ponga at Maroons training. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL

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