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Kalyn Ponga's decision to remain with the Newcastle Knights in favour of NRL expansion team the Dolphins next season has raised a 'five-alarm' bell among NRL insiders.
After months of speculation the Knights star was planning to jump ship to Wayne Bennett's Dolphins when they enter the league next season, Ponga this week opted to re-sign with Newcastle.
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It was a move that surprised the NRL world, following Ponga's recent meeting with Bennett that lead many to believe he would depart the Hunter after opting not to sign a contract extension with the Knights several weeks ago.
NRL insiders Buzz Rothfield, Paul Kent and Brent Read discussed Ponga's decision on NRL 360 on Wednesday evening, revealing details of the 'brutal' meeting between the Knights star and Bennett.
According to Read, Bennett issued a stern challenge to Ponga in their meeting, challenging to lift his game to even greater heights at the Dolphins.
However the panel was left somewhat concerned that a challenge to expand Ponga's game by one of the sport's greatest ever coaches was turned down.
“I spoke with Kalyn and Andre for about a half-hour after the press conference today and it was interesting what they said about the meeting with Wayne. Apparently Wayne was pretty brutal," Read said.
"Kalyn said it was a pretty brutal meeting. Wayne didn’t hold back on him and basically challenged him.
"They walked out of that meeting and I said to them, was there a moment when you thought I am staying in Newcastle? It was actually when they walked out of that meeting.
"He and his father looked at each other when I was sitting with them and they basically said, we walked out of that meeting and looked at each other and said, that’s it we are staying in Newcastle.”
NRL insiders left troubled by Ponga's Bennett rejection
Read was conciliatory to Ponga's decision, later pointing to the new centre of excellent Newcastle has been constructing, as well as the long-term committment of head coach Adam O'Brien.
Kent was less enthusiastic though, concerned it was a sign Ponga was not motivated to improve his game.
"If I am Newcastle, that sends off a five bell alarm for me because if Wayne Bennett has challenged you to become the player you can be and you don’t want to under arguably the best coach we have seen," he said.
"If you don’t want to do that and say, nah I’ll go back to the safer confines of Newcastle.
"If I am Newcastle I am saying, what have I just signed?”
"We basically walked out of that meeting, looked at each other and decided we're staying at Newcastle"
Brent Read on Ponga walking out of the meeting with Wayne 🗣
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Ponga's new contract will keep him at the Knights until the end of the 2027 season.
In a bid to appease the fullback and his father Andre, who acts as his manager, the club allowed Ponga player options in the final two years (2023 and 2024) of his previous deal.
Those clauses essentially allowed Ponga to walk away from the Knights to join a rival NRL club or switch codes and test himself in rugby union.
Ponga had until June to activate the clause for the 2023 season, but the new deal has eradicated those clauses and assured that he will remain with Newcastle.
The Queensland Origin fullback said he weighed up the chance to become a marquee foundation player for Bennett at the Dolphins but wanted to remain at Newcastle in the hope of winning a premiership.
"It definitely was (an option to join the Dolphins)," said Ponga, who was flanked by his father, Knights coach Adam O'Brien and club football manager Danny Buderus for the announcement.
"For me, the way we've always gone about things is you want to put everything on the table to know what was in front of me.
"If you're going to sign for five years you want to know what's going on.
"I feel like the vision here is more for me ... I want to work hard the next five years as a Knight to win a comp."
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