Kalyn Ponga lives life like he plays rugby league – effortlessly.
Seemingly, without a care in the world. So relaxed, his mum Adine says there are times when “I just want to strangle him”.
“Yeah, he’s casual alright. Too relaxed at times but it’s always been that way with him,” she says smiling.
Cool, calm, confident and carefree – the sort of qualities that go a long way to explaining why this 20-year-old freakish talent has taken the NRL by storm this season, yet seems largely unaffected and untouched by it all. Almost oblivious to the out-pouring of adulation from fans and former greats.
Probably explains as well why he didn’t think twice about doing a back-flip off the roof of teammate Connor Watson’s house into his swimming pool prior to the season and posting the evidence on instagram.
Or telling Channel Nine’s Darren Lockyer after making his Queensland Origin debut this season when asked the difference between what he’d just experienced and a club game: “Not much - the crowd’s bigger”.
When we bring it up with the brilliant young Knights fullback, he gives you a smile and a shrug of the shoulders as if to say: “What’s the big deal”.
“Welcome to our world,” his father Andre laughs.
We are sitting down with the Ponga family at their Charlestown home. There’s Kalyn, Andre and Adine and 7-year-old Kayley plus Milo, their British bulldog pup.
The dog is currently at the centre of a custody battle between Kalyn and his mum after the Knights star moved out of home several weeks ago to move in with Watson. While it is Kalyn’s dog, so far at least, mum appears to be winning.
Here is a close-knit family if ever there was one bound together by love and a tragedy which the Pongas have not always found easy to talk about.
When Kalyn was seven and the family was living in Mt Isa, his 18-month-old brother Kacey passed away after falling into an open septic tank at a sports ground in Mt Isa during a rugby clinic.
“Kacey would have been 14 now and he is never out of our thoughts,”Andre says. “Kalyn handled it pretty good but at the end of the day, we didn’t hide anything from him.”
As a private tribute to his brother, Kalyn has a tattoo of a bumblebee on the inside of his left ankle.
“Family is the most important thing just because of the events that have happened in our life,” he says.
“We are a very close family – always have been and it’s good.”
Born in Port Hedland in Western Australia, Kalyn spent the first seven years of his life in Mt Isa before his brother’s death saw the family relocate to Andre and Adine’s homeland New Zealand.
They spent five years in Palmerston North, enough time for Kalyn to demonstrate to his father he might make a real good soccer player one day. It was also enough time for him to win the New Zealand Under 13’s national golf championship and excel at touch footy.
But when the family decided to move back to Australia and landed in Mackay when Kalyn was 13, soccer and golf gave way to rugby league.
“The club in Mackey only had three or four junior golfers playing and with Kalyn, it’s about the social side of it and playing with your mates,” Adine says.
“And North Queensland, it’s all about rugby league and that’s why he picked it. But we never expected what’s happened now to happen. Not back then.”
Kalyn made the Australian Schoolboys Under 15’s side when he was 14 and a year later, the family moved to Brisbane where he was a Broncos scholarship holder and was on the radar of AFL club Brisbane Lions, the Queensland Reds rugby franchise and a host of rugby league clubs before he ultimately signed with the North Queensland Cowboys.
He made his NRL debut during the 2016 finals series with the Cowboys before being courted by the Knights later that year and eventually, signing a lucrative four-year deal that would kick off in Newcastle in 2018.
The magnitude of the deal for a teenager at the time raised plenty of eyebrows but Knights coach Nathan Brown and Head of Football Darren Mooney, in the early stages of trying to rebuild the club from the ground up, recognised Ponga was the prodigious talent they needed to take the club forward.
At the same time, a disillusioned Ponga family had had enough of Townsville and the Cowboys, who Andre says did not look after their son’s welfare off the field.
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“If they [the Cowboys] were doing the right thing by Kalyn, it would have made it harder to leave,” Andre says. “But at the end of the day, if you are not doing things off the field that were promised, that’s the story.”
At the heart of their issue with the club was their refusal to allow Kalyn to sit an exam for a course he was undertaking because of a clash with his football commitments.
“The focus has always been his education so to be told he can do the course but you can’t sit the final exam, that tells the story I guess,” Adine says.
Andre admits their son’s life away from footy is paramount.
After a year to get his bearings and concentrate on his footy, Kalyn intends to go back to university next year to study either business or graphic design. He has a passion for photography.
“Football is not our concern, that’s his concern. We are more worried about his welfare away from the game,” Andre says.
“School never came easy to Kalyn. He’s worked hard at his education because he has had to so to get told that you are not here for an education when you were his age, that’s where things fell down at the Cowboys.
“We all know that footy is his primary goal. But as parents, there needed to be a plan B and to have the tools to create a good person off the field, that’s more important to us.
“When he made his choice to come to Newcastle, it was comforting to us because it wasn’t about making the top four or wooden spoons.
“It was a no-brainer because of the opportunities available to him here and at the same time, he could play a bit of footy. We can’t thank Browny and Moons and the club enough for what they have provided him.”
Kalyn could not be happier either.
“100 percent, I love it here,” he says.
“I think I’ve said it a million times so I’ve got the answer down pat now. I love everything about the place. The area, the club, the boys – it’s all good.”
So how does he explain his All Blacks comments during a recent NZ television interview that exploded in the media here and left Knights fans sweating bullets that he was thinking about defecting to rugby?
“If anyone actually watched the interview, they would realise people took it out of context and didn’t understand I was speaking hypothetically,” he says. “It was blown up out of proportion but I can’t control that.
“I never said I wanted to switch to rugby or wanted to play for the All Blacks. The question was asked if you were to play rugby again, would you strive for the All Blacks. It was completely hypothetical.
“The club didn’t care. Browny didn’t care because he understood the context.”
Despite making his Origin debut, winning the Danny Buderus Medal for the Knights’ player of the year and being one of the favourites to win the Dally M Medal for the NRL’s best player, Kalyn says 2018 for him was a “learning year”.
I never said I wanted to switch to rugby or wanted to play for the All BlacksPonga
“I’m only 20. I’m still just learning,”he says. “From my point of view, I’m a little bit disappointed how it ended up with the ankle injury and missing those games at the end.
“From the team side of things, if you look at some of our stats, they are probably not the best. I reckon we could easily have been pushing for the finals but it wasn’t to be.
“It sucks what happened this season with injuries. Me, Connor and Pearcey played less than three games together so if you put that in context, it’s hard to build combinations.
“To be successful, you want your halves and fullback to be playing games together and it sucks that we didn’t get that opportunity this year. But I learnt a lot as a footy player and a lot outside of footy as well. I feel like I am going to be a whole lot better for that experience.
“I’ll try and carry that into next year and with a few good signings and the boys we have there now, with another year under our belts, we should have a better year I reckon.”
As for the burning question about whether he will play fullback or five-eighth in 2019 and the fact Brown has left the decision up to him, Kalyn maintains the answer lies in what’s best for the team.
“I don’t know to be honest,” he says. “I’ve still got to lot of learn in that position [fullback] but like I’ve said, I’ll do what’s best for the team. I think Browny has put a lot of faith in me. It is pretty good he has said that.
“My role in attack is pretty much five-eighth anyway but we’ll wait and see what happens. I don’t know who we are looking to sign so there are outside influences that might have a bearing.”
In the mean time, he is looking forward to some down time while his mum and dad continue the search for his first property investment.
It’s just another sign of his laid-back nature.
“Yeah, he wants to buy his first house but he’s left it up to dad and mum to do that,” Andre says. “He’ll just say ‘I’m 20 and I’ve got better things to do on a Saturday.”
So what happens if he doesn’t like what mum and dad pick out for him?
“He won’t care because he’ll say if you like it, I’ll like it. That’s just the type of kid he is,” Andre says.
“As I said before, welcome to our world.”