TEENAGE dynamo Kalyn Ponga has put his best foot forward in the pre-season and appears set to start 2018 as Newcastle’s first-choice goalkicker.
Knights coach Nathan Brown says he is keeping an open mind about who to entrust with the kicking duties, but he faces the prospect of going into round one without a recognised sharpshooter.
Trent Hodkinson and Brock Lamb shared the kicking last season, landing a combined 69 goals from 85 attempts at a healthy strike rate of 81.1 per cent.
But unless there are injuries, new signings Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson appear certain to be Brown’s No.1 halves combination from the outset.
Brown said he had a number of options, all of whom have been working with Newcastle’s kicking consultant, Damien Hill. A former rugby union player, Hill spent time in America studying NFL kicking techniques and has mentored league players such as Kurt Gidley and Benji Marshall.
He was also employed recently as the Australian Rugby Union’s official kicking coach, working with the Wallabies and Super Rugby franchises.
“We’ve got a few options in the outside backs, like Kalyn Ponga, Nick Meaney, Ken Sio and Dylan Phythian, and in the halves obviously Hokko and Brock,” Brown said.
“The goalkicker will be somewhere in amongst that group.”
Brown said he was not concerned about the likelihood of having to rely on a novice kicker.
“From what Hilly has told me, a number of those blokes strike the ball well,” Brown said.
“They all have to start somewhere. I suppose even Hokko wasn’t a recognised kicker when he started out.”
Brown said he would liaise with Hill in the countdown to Newcastle’s pre-season trials before making a decision.
Asked which player had impressed him most, Hill nominated the left-footed Ponga, who kicked regularly during his time in North Queensland’s under-20s.
“Kalyn Ponga, he’s got a great boot on him,” Hill said. “He’s only going to get better, because he’s still young.
“Once he learns the whole process of how to kick and understands it, and probably seeing how he kicks under fatigue. That’s a big thing, too.
“But he’s got a great strike on him. He’s the one who stands out, but it’s only early days yet.”
Asked if Ponga was capable of kicking in the NRL, Hill replied: “Without a doubt.”
If Brown opts for Ponga, he is likely to be the youngest and most inexperienced goalkicker in the NRL next season.
The dynamic fullback does not turn 20 until March 30 and has played in only nine first-grade games.
A former rugby union winger with the Waratahs and Eastern Districts, Hill was a prolific pointscorer in the Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union competition who trialled as a kicker in America at a couple of NFL “combines”.
“I tried out but I was out of my depth,” he said.
“I hadn’t ever kicked in snow before. But it was a great experience and I learned a lot of fundamentals over in America.
“I built a very close relationship with Darren Bennett, the former Aussie player.
“They’re very biomechanical over there, and from the time I spent there I learned a lot about the holistic approach to goalkicking.”
Meanwhile, Cronulla have joined Manly in expressing interest in signing Hodkinson, who has one season left on his contract with the Knights.