Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

NEWCASTLE Knights fans should enjoy Kalyn Ponga while they can.

SPECIAL TALENT: Kalyn Ponga has been dynamic in his first season for the Newcastle Knights. It remains to be seen how long he stays in rugby league. Picture: AAP

SPECIAL TALENT: Kalyn Ponga has been dynamic in his first season for the Newcastle Knights. It remains to be seen how long he stays in rugby league. Picture: AAP

It would be easy to dismiss Ponga’s comments in an interview with TVNZ this week as a hypothetical response to a hypothetical question – except for the fact that if he really does want to one day play for the All Blacks, he would appear quite capable of making that happen.

Therein lies the dilemma for Knights management and the club’s supporters.

In most cases, only those who chase their dreams get to realise them, and it seems that Ponga’s aspirations extend above and beyond what he can achieve in rugby league.

“I’m not too sure what my future is going to hold and whether I’m going to stay in league or change codes, but if I was to go back to union, I would want to strive for that black jumper,” he told TVNZ.

“I think it’s the pinnacle. They are the best sporting organisation in the world.

“The stats have showed that. The way they hold themselves and their values, and it’s just the little things that they do that make them that step above everyone else. To put that jersey on would be pretty special.”

Ponga clarified that statement by adding that “I’ve got three years with my contract with the Knights and I’ve got some things I want to achieve in that time”, but his comments have already been noted by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who was happy to confirm the admiration was mutual.

“You’ve got to be aware of him, he’s a special player … he’s had a super Origin,” Hansen said. “He’s a Kiwi boy and he’s just come out and said maybe one day he might want to come and play rugby.

“If that’s his choice, when he makes that choice, then of course whoever is around [coaching the All Blacks] at that time would definitely be interested because he’s a talented athlete.”

The irony is that the more Ponga achieves during the next three years with the Knights, potentially the more likely he will be to pursue a code switch.

He has already made his debut for Queensland, off the bench, and in all likelihood will be one of the first players picked next season in their starting side.

If he doesn’t play for Australia in this year’s end-of-season Test, or Tests, then that would seem only a matter of time.

He could well finish his first full season in the NRL as the youngest-ever winner of the Dally M gold medal, although that might depend on an ankle injury that has him in doubt for Sunday’s clash with Cronulla and Newcastle’s last-round match against St George Illawarra.

The other obvious box that every player would like to tick is winning a premiership. If Ponga can manage that by the end of his current deal with Newcastle – by which time he will be 23 – then he will have reached a pivotal juncture in his career.

The reality is that rugby league is a boutique sport played in only a handful of countries.

In this day and age, players can earn a lucrative living and the vast majority are content to look no further than their next game, or their next contract.

But as Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau, Karmichael Hunt, Jarryd Hayne and Brad Thorn have shown, for a certain few there are opportunities and challenges that the 13-man code simply can’t offer.

After a while, even for rugby league’s true champions, one season must tend to blur into the next. The measure of their greatness is that they keep repeating and reproducing what they have already achieved. 

Each year there are highlights, such as Origin and the play-offs, but along the way there are also games at Brookvale, or Canberra, or even ANZ Stadium that are poorly attended.

Even representing Australia, which should be the ultimate honour, has been overshadowed by the hype surrounding State of Origin.

Rugby union, on the other hand, provides a genuine international stage and a meaningful World Cup every four years.

Test matches are played in front of sell-out crowds at iconic venues such as Twickenham, Eden Park, and Millennium Stadium, which dwarf Sydney’s suburban rugby league grounds.

Moreover, as Sonny Bill showed, rugby union also provides a route to the Olympics via its Sevens format.

Financially, at the elite level, union is probably more rewarding.

Of course, not all players are equipped to make the transition from one code to another. Most rugby league forwards have no idea about scrummaging or line-outs. Their union counterparts are often too cumbersome to handle the speed of the NRL. Playmakers of both codes have vastly different job descriptions.

History suggests, however, that outside backs are most likely to make successful transitions.

In Ponga’s case, three years from now he could find himself in a unique position.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever switched from league to union – or vice versa – and established himself as the undisputed best player in both codes.

To do so would require not only an unprecedented skill set, but also remarkable motivation, self-belief and a willingness to chase dreams.

It’s early days and who knows what lies ahead, but perhaps Kalyn Ponga can eventually prove to be the best of both worlds.