Ponga bounces back to help Knights take down Titans
Kalyn Ponga has breathed a sigh of relief after bouncing back to form and guiding Newcastle to a 46-26 win over Gold Coast that thrusts him into State of Origin contention and silences critics of the Knights' bye-week holidays.
Parramatta bullied Ponga in his first full game at five-eighth two weeks ago, raising serious concerns about the ex-fullback's ability to take on the extra workload of his new position.
But while his teammates shipped out to Bali, Fiji, New Zealand and beyond during Newcastle's round-10 break - copping plenty of flak from the media - Ponga spent the bye training to prove he could return to his best after his recent concussion problems.
The extra reps paid off in a big way at McDonald Jones Stadium, with Ponga enjoying his best game for the Knights in recent memory and showing he has the makings of a star five-eighth.
"It was way too premature for people to comment given the sample size this year," Knights coach Adam O'Brien said of criticism levelled at Ponga's positional switch.
"When he hit the go-button in the second half for us, he showed he's elite."
The Titans had the better of a scrappy opening half but Ponga put the Knights on level terms at the break when he threaded a grubber kick through the line for Tyson Frizell.
The 25-year-old lifted his intensity in the second half, first sending former Titan Greg Marzhew over with a cut-out pass and then scything past Tanah Boyd and Jojo Fifita on a line break that set up Bradman Best.
Ponga burst down the left flank on another line break only three minutes later and then dummied past Jayden Campbell to score a try of his own.
By that point, Newcastle were well and truly on their way to a win that will allow their five-eighth to sleep easy on Sunday night.
"To be honest it is (a relief)," Ponga said.
"It hasn't been all sunshine and roses the last eight months.
"To come back home and put in a performance like that in front of the crowd I haven't played in front of for a long time ... I am happy.
"I need to back it up and be consistent. That's something that I need to do for the rest of the year and probably something I haven't done for a couple of years now."
Ponga's performance would not have gone unnoticed by Queensland coach Billy Slater, who is set to pick either the Knights star or Brisbane's Reece Walsh to play fullback in Origin 1.
"It's a prestigious honour to represent Queensland," Ponga said.
"But I can't worry about selection. I want to worry about my performances (for the Knights)."
Best shrugged off criticism of his bye-week trip to Bali by pouncing on a Titans error in the in-goal to grab his second try in the final five minutes.
Titans second-rower David Fifita was the best of a beaten bunch, scoring two tries to push an Origin case that is fast becoming irresistible.
He crashed past Frizell and Lachie Miller to open the Titans' account and then gave Gold Coast a late sniff by belting away on a 95-metre line break to clinch a sixth career double.
But it was too little, too late for the Titans, who rued taking poor fifth-tackle options when they had the ascendancy early.
"We just made too many errors," Titans coach Justin Holbrook said.
"We've had a couple of good wins and we needed to stand up and deliver again today and we just weren't good enough."