Newcastle Knights coach Adam O'Brien has confirmed that Origin star Kalyn Ponga 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.
Ponga was a standout at fullback for Queensland during last year's State of Origin series victory for the Maroons, but endured a frustrating season for the Knights as they missed out on finals footy after finishing in 14th spot on the ladder. He also made the shock call to opt out of selection for Australia's victorious World Cup campaign after missing several games towards the back end of the 2022 season due to multiple concussions.
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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.”
Ponga's move is set to spark a three-way battle for the Newcastle No.1 jersey, with English recruit Bailey Hodgson understood to be the front-runner. O'Brien says Dane Gagai and Tyson Gamble have also “spent some time” training at fullback during the off-season.
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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.”
Joining O'Brien on a new-look coaching staff for the upcoming season will be former Leeds, Toronto and Featherstone boss Brian McDermott, who will take up an assistant coaching role at the club, with former halfback Michael Dobson heading up the Knights' junior development program as head of pathways.
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