QUEENSLAND skipper Greg Inglis labelled Kalyn Ponga “an incredible kid” who was “made” for State of Origin after his remarkable debut for the Maroons on Sunday.
On a night that will be best remembered for NSW breaking their title drought with an 18-14 victory that clinched the series, Ponga made his first appearance at interstate level and had an immediate impact. More renowned for his fancy footwork and ball-distributing prowess, Ponga has spent his entire 24-game NRL career playing as fullback or winger.
The big question leading into Origin II at ANZ Stadium was how the Maroons, after selecting the 20-year-old on the interchange bench, were going to deploy him.
In particular, the great unknown was how he would handle the physical challenge of defending in the front line, given that veteran Billy Slater had been named at fullback.
It was expected the Newcastle dynamo would be stationed on the edge of the rucks in defence, as if playing in the halves, or possibly even on the wing, prompting his teammates on that edge to push infield to minimise his workload.
Instead Queensland coach Kevin Walters produced a wildcard by introducing Ponga in the 27th minute and instructing him to defend in the middle, which ensured there was nowhere to hide from the heavy traffic rumbling in his direction.
Far from being intimidated or overawed, Ponga rolled up his sleeves and strung together 29 tackles in the space of 53 minutes, most of them classical around-the-legs efforts.
To put that in perspective, Ponga has been averaging five tackles per game for Newcastle this year.
He still found enough energy to make 108 attacking metres from 10 runs, including a line break in the 69th minute that brought the crowd to its feet.
When the game was on the line in the final minutes, Queensland regularly sent the ball to their youngest player in the hope he could provide salvation.
Queensland coach Kevin Walters said at the post-match press conference Ponga “showed his class” and “gave us a performance we can be really proud of”.
“His performance was outstanding for first-up in Origin,” Walters said.
“I think he made 30-odd tackles in the middle and played for about 60 minutes, so it was a huge effort from him.
“A disappointing start to his Origin career from a win-loss point of view, but certainly I think he’s heading in the right direction.”
Nonetheless, Walters admitted Ponga had surprised him.
“We didn’t think he could play the longer minutes in the middle, but he’s obviously a special player, and only special people can do what he did tonight,” he said.
“Playing in the middle in Origin, and doing what he did in attack and defence, he was quite outstanding.”
All of which would suggest Ponga could well be making his Test debut against New Zealand in October.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.