KNIGHTS coach Nathan Brown was delighted with Kalyn Ponga’s dazzling debut for the club but warned that the 19-year-old sensation can expect to be targeted by rival players in the weeks ahead.
Ponga scored a fine solo try, landed three conversions from as many attempts, made 115 attacking metres, fielded every kick soundly and effected some try-saving tackles to play a crucial role in Newcastle’s season-opening 19-18 golden-point win against Manly at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday.
The high-profile recruit from North Queensland, who signed a four-year deal worth $2-3 million over four years, was appearing in only his 10th NRL game.
Impressed as Brown was, he was also realistic about the challenge ahead.
“Obviously there’s been a lot of talk about Kalyn,” Brown said.
“I think we saw tonight he scored a brilliant individual try, but what was most pleasing about that was he got a heavy knock just before it, and he still wanted the ball.
“I’d imagine that … it’s going to get a lot harder for Kalyn before it gets easier. He’s such a gifted young player and there’s a lot of hype, and there’s going to be plenty of sides that are going to look to kick high and give him plenty of stick.”
Judging by Friday night’s display, Ponga will handle it.
Lining up against Manly’s international fullback Tom Trbojevic, the Queenslander lost nothing in comparison.
With his first touch of the ball, he fielded a bomb under pressure and copped a high tackle from Manly centre Brian Kelly for his trouble.
Three minutes later, Ponga received the ball 15 metres out on the left-hand edge and darted between Manly defenders Daly Cherry-Evans and Cutis Sironen to score.
He calmly landed the first goal of his NRL to give Newcastle a 6-0 lead.
No less impressive were his efforts in defence.
In the 49th minute, he arrived with perfect timing to cause Manly winger Akuila Uate, appearing for the first time on his former home ground, to lose the ball as he dived for the corner.
Six minutes later, he cut down Daly Cherry-Evans in open field after the Manly skipper burst clear. Then in the 58th minute, he was involved in a swarming tackle that denied Manly winger Jorge Taufua from grounding the ball over the line.
“For a 19-year-old kid – who’s probably had more hype than most players ever have – I think we can all say he’s done a pretty fair job for us,” Brown said.
Ponga was not the only Newcastle newcomer to make his mark on debut.
Brown’s squad featured nine off-season imports, all of whom contributed.
Former Brisbane front-rower Herman Ese’ese made almost as many metres (185) in attack as his much-vaunted opposite number, Marty Taupau (194).
New hooker Slade Griffin topped the tackle count with 40, while Aidan Guerra (36 tackles and 125 metres) produced a fine all-round knock.
Then Mitchell Pearce’s golden point field goal sent a crowd of 23,516 home in jubilant mood.