Newcastle fullback Lachie Miller says he's prepared to make the shift to five-eighth when Kalyn Ponga returns, if that's the wish of Knights coach Adam O'Brien. Ponga has been sidelined for five weeks after suffering his fourth concussion in the space of 10 months, during Newcastle's round two victory over the Wests Tigers in the NRL.
The Knights captain is set to return for the round eight clash against the North Queensland Cowboys on April 22 after being cleared in the wake of neurological testing in Canada earlier this month. The Knights have not yet revealed what position Ponga will play when he returns, with some suggestions he would be better off switching back to fullback - a position the 25-year-old occupied for Newcastle last season.
Former Knights star Matty Johns was among those calling for Ponga to be shifted back to No.1, where he will not find himself quite so much in the firing line as he does at five-eighth. Ponga makes three tackles per game on average at fullback, compared to 12 when he features at No.6.
There is a counter argument to a positional shift for Ponga in that the majority of his concussions have come while he was playing at the back. Further complicating matters is Miller's form at fullback, where the Knights recruit has excelled in 2023.
Miller has been arguably the club's best player this season and Ponga's return will give his Knights coach a big decision to make in terms of the best balance for his side. Miller - a former Rugby 7s star - played in the halves as a youngster and spent five games at five-eighth in reserve grade last year at Newtown. Miller says he'd have no qualms returning to the frontline if required.
"When I was younger I played all halfback until I was 20," Miller told AAP. "I have played it, it is obviously a very different level but I have played it and would be comfortable. It would just take a bit of time.
"I'm sure if it is fullback (Ponga) returns to, Adsy (coach Adam O'Brien) will have something up his sleeve. Whether that is off the bench or in the halves. We also have Tyson Gamble and Phoenix (Crossland) who are really good halves."
Another factor O'Brien has to weigh up is the form of Gamble, who has struck up a solid halves combination with Jackson Hastings, in Ponga's absence. "You've got one of the best players in the comp on the sideline at the moment," Miller added. They will make a decision around that, and whatever that is, will be best for the team."
Lachie Miller has stepped up in Kalyn Ponga's absence
Miller said the absence of Ponga had accelerated his own growth in his first full season in the NRL, after being limited to seven games at Cronulla last year. "I feel like when those boys have gone down, maybe I should step up a little bit and help Jacko (Hastings) out," Miller said.
"I have a lot to learn, I haven't played a lot of games. The game sense and the defensive structures as a fullback has been the main thing."
Ponga's most recent concussion sparked widespread concern for the Queensland Origin star's future in the game. However, the Knights skipper says his time with specialists in Canada has provided the 25-year-old with the necessary reassurance that he's in a good place to come back to the NRL.
"We got the best result I could over there," Ponga said. "That was the result I got, that you are able to go back and play ... your brain is in a healthy position to do so. Really reassuring and positive news."
O'Brien has already indicated the club will wait until Ponga's round eight return to make a decision where he will play. It comes after Johns suggested it might be prudent of the Knights to shift Ponga back to fullback, as means of safeguarding their biggest star.
"When you are a kid and your whole life you have defended in the front line, there is so much of defence that is intuition," Johns said. "You just know where to place your head, where to place your feet. How to drop, when to drive. It doesn't safeguard you from concussions ... but for (Ponga) this is a whole new kettle of fish (defending in the frontline)."
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