Ponga is Newcastle’s best player. Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images.
Ponga is Newcastle’s best player. Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images.

Now we will see how great Ponga wants to be

Newcastle have given Kalyn Ponga the big-money deal, and he'll be staying at the Knights until at least the end of 2024, but the figures don't really matter - they would have given their fullback the keys to Henny Penny and renamed the stadium Ponga Park if that's what it took to keep him in town.

Ponga was always going to get this kind of contract, if not from the Knights then from somebody else, but leaving Newcastle never seemed like a real possibility. All Blacks talk aside, Ponga has found a home at the Knights as the centrepiece of a rebuild that went nowhere for a while but now, under Adam O'Brien, is going all kinds of places very quickly.

There's no point speculating if Ponga is worth the hefty contract he's signed with the Knights - by definition, he is worth the money because Newcastle were willing to give it to him and because it was what the market would bear - but the challenge now for the 22-year old is where his career goes from here.

This kind of deal has been in Ponga's future ever since his first season with the Knights, where he immediately looked like the sort of player the club could build around, on and off the field. Barring catastrophic injury, or an inexplicable loss of form, it was always going to be this way. Ponga is worth the money, as everyone who has seen him play can easily tell. You'd have been mad not to give it to him.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Ash Taylor was worth that kind of money as well. The Titans half is now one of the poster boys for overinflated contracts, and his $1 million per season deal is waved in Gold Coast's face as proof of their unmitigated and hopeless idiocy.

But it made sense at the time, it really did. Remember what Taylor was like in 2016, his first year with the Titans? He won rookie of the year ahead of Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker and Suliasi Vunivalu and Latrell Mitchell, and became the club's best player almost from the jump, guiding Gold Coast to their first finals series since 2010, just the third trip to the playoffs in the club's history. The next season the Titans came last, because that's just what they do from time to time, but Taylor still led the league in try assists and at the end of the year he signed the deal that made him a millionaire. Taylor looked like everything the Titans had been searching for, a playmaker who could finally replace Scott Prince, the bedrock of a glorious new era where the Titans weren't anyone's joke anymore.

You would have bet anything on Ash Taylor making it. Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images.
You would have bet anything on Ash Taylor making it. Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images.

Watching him that season you would have bet anything he would be a 10-year NRL halfback, with a swag of Origin and Test caps and maybe even a premiership along the way. The biggest issue wasn't Taylor himself, it was whether the Titans could keep him from the clutches of the Broncos, and if they could surround him with enough talent. Taylor was going to be the foundation on which everything else could be built. You would have bet your life on it. You certainly would have bet a million dollars. You would have to be mad not to give it to him.

It's easy now to deride the Titans for handing Taylor that much money and that long a contract, but nobody was laughing at the time. It was a coup, a steal, a blow struck against the Broncos, whom everyone assumed Taylor would return. If the Titans didn't want to put up a million for Taylor, somebody else assuredly would have. Through Taylor, the beggars had found a seat at the banquet at last.

Everything that's happened to Taylor - and the Titans - since has made the deal look worse all the time, but the club made the right decision. They made a hell of a lot of poor decisions afterwards, but they got that one right. They bet on talent, which is all any team can really do. Taylor may one day get back to the form that made him a millionaire, but the further away we get from 2016 the less likely it seems it'll ever happen that way again.

O’Brien might be Ponga’s greatest asset. AAP Image/Darren Pateman.
O’Brien might be Ponga’s greatest asset. AAP Image/Darren Pateman.

The smart money says Ponga does not go the way of Taylor. O'Brien is not even half a season into his coaching career but the Knights have made tremendous strides already under his tutelage. The spotlight is on Ponga in a way it was never on Taylor - the Novocastrian has a star quality like few players in the league, and is seemingly a magnet for praise, hyperbole and media shine - but the roster around him is, again, far more well-constructed than the shambling Gold Coast outfits Taylor was stuck with in the past few years.

The challenge now for Ponga is not to prove he is worth the money the Knights have given him, because he already clearly is, it's to prove he is worth yet more again - not in dollars and cents, but with his play.

As good as Ponga is and has been, there are still some slightly rough edges. You have to squint to see them, but they're there. He still heavily favours attacking down the left and his passing, so delectable on that side, doesn't show itself as well or as regularly on the right. These are very minor concerns - Ponga could stay the same player he is now for the next 10 years and still be very successful - but ironing out these final wrinkles is what separates the very best players in the game from the rest.

Take James Tedesco as an example. Tedesco was already one of the top fullbacks in the league, if not the very best, when he left the Tigers at the end of 2017. In his first year at the Roosters he got better, as one would expect under the coaching of someone like Trent Robinson. By the end of the season, he was considered among the top players in the game. It was difficult to imagine what a better version of the pride of Camden would look like.

But in 2019 that's exactly what happened. Tedesco did improve, even though he had no real incentive to do so beyond his own, internal motivations. There was nothing else he could get, beside the satisfaction of his own excellence.

Tedesco keeps finding new levels. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts.
Tedesco keeps finding new levels. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts.

He had the money and the titles and the accolades and was assured of rep selection for as long as he was fit, but he still strived for more. By the end of the year he was the king of all he surveyed and the best player on a premiership team for the second year in a row. Tedesco was already one of the best around, and he had nothing to prove any more, but he proved it again anyway. If his form in 2020 thus far is anything to go by, he's proving it again just because he can.

Jason Taumalolo did the same when he was handed his monster deal with North Queensland, to the point where his reported salary of $1 million a season now looks like a bargain. Cameron Smith has done the same thing since he was marking Dally Messenger and can probably keep doing it until he's marking David Fifita's grandkids.

In some order, Tedesco, Taumalolo and Smith are the three best players in the game. Ponga isn't far off, but taking those last few steps are the hardest ones of all. His ceiling is their level of excellence, he can be the best player on a premiership team, he can be a Dally M winner, an Origin titan, a Test regular, a tremendous force of gravity in the NRL universe. The only limits to what he can achieve in this sport are the ones he places on himself. I won't pretend to know exactly what Ponga needs to do to get better, or what he needs to do to keep getting better once he does get better. That's something only Ponga can decide for himself, and nobody can make him do it. If he doesn't, it's pretty easy to understand why - he's young and talented and rich, the prince of the steel city.

But he can yet have more, if he wants it He can touch real rugby league greatness, the kind that has gotten Tedesco compared to Billy Slater and it doesn't seem all that crazy, or made Taumalolo the only running forward in a generation to win the Dally M.

Taumalolo stayed great after he got his money. AAP Image/Brendon Thorne.
Taumalolo stayed great after he got his money. AAP Image/Brendon Thorne.

That is what Ponga can aim for, that's where his talent and skill can take him and there's no reason he can't get there. The difference between good and great is so small, and yet so large.

The Knights are ready for this. They're second on the ladder and their only loss was an unlucky one against the Storm. In O'Brien, they have found their man, the one who can take average players and make them good, and take good players and make them even better. Bradman Best is the strike centre they have been waiting years for, and he just happens to hang out on the left, where Ponga does his finest work. Daniel Saifiti has realised he's 195cm, 121kg and there's two him. Mitchell Pearce will be feeding scrums until judgement day and he'll be feeding them pretty well. David Klemmer has discovered an offload and can still grind bones to make his bread. Edrick Lee is a hero and always will be.

The rebuild is over. Put on the Screaming Jets and turn it all the way up.

Anything less than a finals berth this season, given how they've started, would be a disaster, and don't kid yourself - the Knights fans in your life are already dreaming of the finals, and loading up a fleet of Sid Fogg buses on which it's good vibes only, and coming down to Sydney and screaming "NEW! CAS! TLE!" until they have no voice left in an effort to get the team home. They love the Knights like they're their own blood and that love is unconditional, but they're ready for this to happen. After years of misery it's time for hope to live again, and Ponga is at the heart of it all and while Newcastle is no one-man band, but the Knights will rise as high as Ponga can take them.

Even so, there's no such thing as a sure thing. We said all these things about Ash Taylor, once upon a time. He had the same ceiling, and now he might never reach it, or even come close. Now Ponga carries the fortunes of Newcastle in his pocket like so many nickels and dimes, we're about to find out the real measure of Kalyn Ponga and just how great a player he wants to be.


Originally published as Now we will see how great Ponga wants to be