KNIGHTS chief executive Phil Gardner hopes Kalyn Ponga will never join another NRL team but can understand why he might aspire to play for the All Blacks.
Ponga, the dynamic 20-year-old who has been a revelation since joining Newcastle at the end of last season, revealed in an interview with NZTV.co.nz on Tuesday that switching codes might be an option at some point in the future.
He is contracted to Newcastle for three seasons after this one.
Ponga was born in Australia, but both his parents are Kiwis and he spent his childhood living on both sides of the Tasman.
A schoolboy rugby union sensation before signing with the North Queensland Cowboys, he has knocked back the chance to play international rugby league for New Zealand, instead debuting for Queensland in this year’s State of Origin series.
But his admiration for the world champion All Blacks is obvious.
“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,” Ponga said.
“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 added that he still had “some things I want to achieve” during his next three seasons with Newcastle.
“I don’t know what is going to happen at the end of that, but playing at the pinnacle is the goal,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be the best or somewhere thereabouts, so we will have to wait and see.”
Gardner said he hoped Ponga would be a long-term Newcastle player but accepted that he might find the challenge of switching codes enticing, as has been the case in recent seasons for Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau, Jarryd Hayne, Brad Thorn and Karmichael Hunt.
“Kalyn’s one of the most honest young men you will ever meet,” Gardner said.
“I’m sure that for three years he is going to give his best for Newcastle and try to achieve everything possible that he can here, which means winning a premiership, playing Origin for Queensland and playing for Australia.
“Once he’s achieved all those goals, there might be other things he wants to do.
“If he thinks that’s rugby, then we want what is best for Kalyn and will support whatever decision he makes.
“But we’ll certainly be doing everything in our power to get him to stay with us.”
Gardner said if Ponga did decide to tackle a new challenge after the 2021 season, he hoped Knights fans would feel “lucky” that he had represented their club for four years.
“A lot of it will come down to what he does achieve during his period of time with us,” Gardner said.
“But certainly I would like to think that we wouldn’t lose him to another NRL club.”
If Ponga’s development continues, by the time he signs his next contract he could potentially become the highest-paid player in the NRL.
But if he switched to the 15-man code and established himself with the All Blacks, that would place him in an even more lucrative marketplace.
“NRL clubs are limited to what they can pay within the salary cap, but players like Billy Slater earn good money for their image rights,” Gardner said.
“Kalyn is similar sort of player to Billy, and with Billy retiring, there is certainly an opportunity for Kalyn to reach Billy’s sort of profile.
“Kalyn is such a good person and role model that big brands are going to want to associate with him.”
Rated a $67 chance before a ball was kicked this season, Ponga will enter Newcastle’s last two games of the season as $2.75 favourite to win the Dally M gold medal.
The fullback-cum-five-eighth, who had played in only nine NRL game for the Cowboys before joining Newcastle, is in line to become the youngest-ever recipient of the game’s ultimate individual honour.
Former Knights legend Matthew Johns said it was only natural that Ponga had expressed an ambition to play for the All Blacks.
“Any kid who has grown up in New Zealand would have an ambition to play for the All Blacks,” Johns told Triple M on Wednesday. “There’s nothing wrong with that at all. That should send out a little warning signal … not so much to the Newcastle Knights, but to the powers-that-be in rugby league.”