Kalyn Ponga played like Newcastle owed him something – now he’s their reason to believe

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There are many ways you could start a celebratory column about the Newcastle Knights and their renaissance this season.

The obvious place is the 30-28 extra-time victory over Canberra on Sunday, when they overcame a 10-point deficit and the loss of halfback Jackson Hastings at half-time.

But there are other places, too.

Maybe you could start with the 66-0 win over the Bulldogs in round 18, the first of a mesmerising 10-match winning run that few – sorry, nobody! – saw coming.

If the Knights didn’t win that match, coach Adam O’Brien would’ve been looking for a job. The club had already sniffed out Des Hasler, Justin Holbrook, Paul McGregor and Michael Maguire as his replacement.

Perhaps a win over heavyweights Melbourne or South Sydney during that merry dance of 10 victories tickles your fancy.

Kalyn Ponga tore the Raiders to shreds on the right in the second half on Sunday.Credit: NRL Photos

The moment that stands out for me came in the second-last regular season round against Cronulla, with McDonald Jones Stadium heaving like the good old days when it was called Marathon Stadium and they shoehorned fans onto the hill.

Captain Kalyn Ponga had been thumped into the middle of next week by Sharks centre Jesse Ramien’s shoulder.

Ponga fired the pass to the left to centre Bradman Best, who scored the try, but there were immediate concerns about Ponga because of his history of head knocks.

He eventually dragged himself to his feet, clutching his shoulder but refusing to leave the ground. The mercurial fullback played on for a few more minutes before the trainers eventually convinced him to leave the field.

Kalyn Ponga leaves the field against the Sharks in round 26.Credit: Getty

As he did so, the Knights faithful rose to their feet and clapped him with the respect and reverence you’d expect at an opera.

Not that long ago, the good people of the Hunter weren’t so enamoured with their superstar fullback on a reported $1.4 million a season.

The infamous toilet cubicle incident in August last year, when he was videoed sauntering out of the brasco with teammate Kurt Mann, left many questioning his dedication.

Knights fans — most rugby league fans for that matter — don’t mind their players being scallywags. As long as the player is giving his all, or at least justifying his enormous pay cheque, they won’t really care if he’s rough around the edges.

Since joining Newcastle in 2018, Ponga had failed to fill a void that’s existed at the club since Andrew Johns was forced into retirement in 2007 with a neck injury.

Ponga looked like a footballer who had a vague interest in rugby league but preferred golf, photography and long walks on the beach. He seemed indifferent to it all, which was hard for the Knights’ still mostly working-class fan base to gobble up because their football team means everything to them.

Then Ponga would pull on a maroon jumper and display the type of grit expected of Queenslanders, showing he can be tough and brilliant, before returning to the Knights where he’d be OK but not brilliant, and it would gnaw at the fans even more.

To get more out of him, the decision was made to turn him into a five-eighth so he had more of the ball.

In attack, there’s not much difference between the roles but, in defence, the relentless contact defending in the front line is incomparable to that felt by the fullback.

Kalyn Ponga after suffering a concussion in round two.Credit: Getty

Ponga was up for the new role, but others at the club were against it. Because of his history of concussions, and the fact he’d played almost all his career at fullback, they feared the worst.

Those fears were realised in the 90th second of the round-two match against the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval when he clashed heads with Asu Kepaoa and was taken from the field.

It was Ponga’s fourth concussion in 10 months.

According to those present, the Knights dressing room felt like a funeral after the match, even though they’d won 14-12. The coaching staff could barely look at each other.

Still, they persisted with Ponga at five-eighth when he returned against the Cowboys in round eight before he was switched back to fullback weeks later.

They suffered narrow losses to the Broncos, Roosters and Penrith, but those performances were a portent.

Newcastle are more than a one-man show, of course. The crowd never chants a player’s name, just that of their team.

If you had said at the start of the season that the halves pairing of Jackson Hastings and Tyson Gamble would be lighting up the NRL, you’d be laughed out of town.

Equally annoying but brilliant in their own way, they are finally getting the ball to their talented outside backs, whether it’s Best or Greg Marzhew on the left or Dane Gagai and Dom Young on the right.

But the main man is Ponga, scheming on either side of the ruck, holding the ball in both hands, or juggling it in one, stepping and jinking, stopping and starting, engaging a defender or two before firing off a pass or running or kicking.

He tore the Raiders to shreds on the right in the second half on Sunday and threatens to do something similar to the Warriors at Mount Smart on Saturday afternoon.

If they can do that, and reach a preliminary final, it will be a moment none of us saw coming – and certainly one worth celebrating.

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