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Let’s talk about Kalyn Ponga, the young Maori from Queensland. He debuted for the North Queensland Cowboys in their Elimination Final win against their big brother, the Brisbane Broncos on the 16th September, 2016. There has existed a great deal of hype around the 19 year old, from the moment he stepped out into the NRL arena. Needless to say, the hype that surrounded his rise was well and truly accurate.
One of his early touches had him stepping and dodging around the Broncos, where they had two defenders run each other over. He put that ball down over the line in an attempt to score a try, which was ultimately disallowed. Now, if we cast our minds back to a pre video referee era, that try would have been awarded purely based on the fact that it was too good to disallow. Although Ponga was unsuccessful on this occasion, the writing was now on the wall that this would be a player to watch.
In the following off season, the Newcastle Knights paid homage to their medieval namesake by going into battle with the North Queensland Cowboys. They put forward the largest offer ever made to a player that at the time had only two first grade matches under his belt. The Cowboys, however, tightened their lasso around Ponga, not wanting to let the talented youngster go too quickly. From a management point of view, the premiership window is always going to be open when you have the finesse of the mighty JT and the promise of a shining star, like Ponga in your team.
This was not all doom and gloom in the Knight’s sky, however. Ponga was contractually bound to remain a Cowboy for another 12 months, mentored by one of the best mentors in the game and arguably the greatest halfback of all time. If there is one thing that the Knight’s and Ponga would have learnt from this, it would be patience. ‘You don’t rush perfection!’
Ponga kicked off his 2018 season in the armour of his new team, the Knights, during the round 1 match against the ravenous Manly Sea Eagles. In a valiant move, Ponga scores the opening try. Individual brilliance! There was a brave pass from new skipper, Mitchell Pearce into an opening between the 3 and 4 defenders. From there it was all Ponga. There were a few other touches during the game which had us on the edge of our seats, demonstrating that he is going to be one of those players that can make something happen out of nothing, and will have the fans waiting for something exceptional whenever he gets the ball.
There were two moments during the game where Ponga was there to save a try. One was on Akuila Uate in the corner, and the other was a team effort holding Jorge Taufua up late in the game. One of Gus Gould’s favourite sayings is, ‘Rugby League is all about scoring tries and saving tries, and he just saved a try right there’. For a player whose highlight reels will display him making the opposition defenders look far out of their depth and his ability and desire to put himself in a situation to save the game, shows that he is fearless and focused in is mental state.
With all that being said, what stands out the most about Ponga is not his extraordinary talent, it is the head on his shoulders. He possesses composure far beyond his years, combined with the upmost humility. No job is too small for him. That’s the attitude he carries. That’s the attitude of a champion. Not resting on his laurels. Knowing there is more to his game than the spectacular. I couldn’t help but think, ‘if he played rugby, he’d become an All Black’. I don’t think there’s any bigger compliment you could give a Maori. He is still very young, but anyone who has been pursued by six professional clubs from across three different sports in his short life is bound to have a stellar career.