KALYN Ponga will play his first NRL game in Canberra on Sunday, a venue where the Newcastle Knights have traditionally done it tough.
But if wins against the Raiders on foreign soil have been few and far between for Knights – five from 26 visits, to be precise – Ponga has far fonder memories of the national capital.
It was during the Australian under-15 championships at Kippax in 2013 that Ponga established himself as the hottest footballing prospect in Australia.
After helping Queensland beat NSW Combined High Schools in the tournament decider, he was named in the Australian under-15 merit team for the second consecutive year – alongside ACT speedster Nick Cotric, whom he will line up against on Sunday.
“We had a great bunch of blokes in that team, and some of them have gone on,” Ponga recalled this week.
“I played pretty well in that tournament, but at that age, it was more about playing with your mates than anything, than the actual footy.
“I made some friendships at 15 that I’ve still got now. That was probably what I remember most about it.”
After the carnival, a host of NRL clubs, including Brisbane, North Queensland and Melbourne, found themselves competing with Super Rugby’s Queensland Reds and AFL’s Brisbane Lions for Ponga’s services.
He eventually signed with the Cowboys, with whom he debuted in the NRL in 2016, before accepting a four-year deal with the Knights worth a reported $2-3 million.
If his first game in the blue and red was any indication, Newcastle’s outlay might prove to be a bargain.
Appearing in his 10th top-grade game, the 19-year-old fullback used his speed and footwork to score the opening try and kicked three goals from as many attempts in Newcastle’s season-opening 19-18 win against Manly at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Knights coach Nathan Brown has warned that “it will get harder for Kalyn” and rival teams will be looking to “kick high and give him a bit of stick” during this formative phase of his career.
“I thought I did my job, in my debut,” Ponga said.
“As a player you want to do your job for the boys, and they thought I did my job, so I was pretty happy with how I played and now I just have to do it again.”
In particular, he was pleased with his defence, having made trysaving tackles on Manly winger Akuila Uate and skipper Daly Cherry-Evans.
“As a fullback, that’s my role, and that’s something I want to work on,” he said.
Ponga said his other memory of Canberra was that it was “cold and it was raining the whole time”. He was relieved to hear the temperature forecast for the ACT on Sunday will be hovering around 30 degrees.
Newcastle will assess co-captain Jamie Buhrer at training on Saturday morning, before the squad flies to Canberra. Buhrer was rated a doubtful starter after suffering what Brown called “a knock” against Manly.
If he was ruled out, young lock Luke Yates is expected to be added to Newcastle’s bench.
The Knights have lost their past three games in Canberra and are bracing for a fierce battle up front with the Raiders’ heavyweight forwards, who will be looking to bounce back from their 30-28 loss to Gold Coast.