Kalyn Ponga has been ruled out of the upcoming Indigenous All-Stars Game, after suffering a calf injury during pre-season training. While the Newcastle Knights are optimistic about his recovery, the news nevertheless came as a bitter blow to fans.
The latest injury setback, while not a potentially serious one, has represented another minor roadblock for Ponga to bypass in his attempts to help the Knights climb the ladder. Repeated injury setbacks, including a concussion in the latter part of the 2022 season, have stymied his plans thus far.
It marks the third year in a row Ponga has been unavailable for the All Stars game, however fellow Indigenous star Latrell Mitchell will make his return after missing last year's match due to suspension. Ponga underwent a total of five in-game head injury assessments last season, failing three and sitting out several games as a result.
Ponga had a standout season otherwise, highlighted by his man of the match performance in the deciding game three of the 2022 State of Origin series. He signed a five-year extension to remain with the club back in April, a deal worth a reported $1 million per season.
Knights coach Adam O'Brien has confirmed the Origin star will make the switch from fullback to five-eighth for the upcoming NRL season. The 24-year-old is regarded as one of the best fullbacks in the game but will link up with new recruit Jackson Hastings in what looms as an exciting halves pairing for the Novocastrians in 2023.
O'Brien told SEN 1170 Breakfast that the 24-year-old had been training at No.6 in the off-season and would make the permanent switch to five-eighth in 2023. “If we were ever going to move Kalyn to six, now is the time,” O’Brien said.
“Essentially, we’ve had five months. He had a very brief break in October and then started training before everyone else. We changed his training program and he’s obviously put some size on in the gym.
“He’s been training at six all summer and he has been doing a really good job at it.”
Kalyn Ponga poised to form new halves combination for Knights
The Knights coach is hoping former Wests Tigers playmaker Hastings can help fill a leadership void after the exit of veteran halfback Mitchell Pearce. Hastings was one of the few standouts for the bottom-placed Tigers before injury ruled him out for the back end of the season.
“He’s definitely a footy head,” O’Brien said. “He knows the game well and he’s a general. He will steer the team around, he’s very vocal and he’s very clear about what he wants those to do around him.
“That allows Kalyn to be himself and doesn’t bog him down with a lot of responsibility of being a director. “At the end of the day you want Jackson to steer the team around and get Kalyn the ball in the space that we need to get him in. They’re working really well together at the moment.”
O'Brien will go into the new season as one of the coaches under the most pressure, following a disappointing 2022 that saw the Knights record just six wins despite boasting a roster that included a number of current and former representative players. The Newcastle coach insists he's learned several valuable lessons and is confident the Knights are shaping up nicely ahead of the new campaign.
“Whilst it wasn’t enjoyable for anyone — the players, staff, supporters — upon reflection over the summer looking back over that season I learnt a lot,” he added. “Hopefully one day you’re looking back at it and saying we made better or smarter decisions having gone through that type of season.
“I don’t want to do that again... but at the same time you start to analyse things a little bit differently and make better decisions in and around recruitment, how you prepare each week and how you handle adversity.”
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