KNIGHTS chief executive Phil Gardner has hit back at Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, labelling his approach to emerging superstar Kalyn Ponga "inappropriate" and "extremely disappointing".
News Corp reported on Friday that "late last year" Cheika expressed interest in the dynamic Newcastle fullback, although no formal offer was tabled.
Cheika confirmed speaking to Ponga over the phone but declined to reveal the nature of the conversation.
Ponga is under contract to the Knights until at least the end of 2021, but in the past few weeks there has been mounting speculation that poachers are already circling him. On Friday, Gardner issued a statement, declaring Ponga was "committed to the Knights" and taking a swipe at the 15-man code.
"It's not surprising that rugby union have identified Kalyn as a talent they wish to get their hands on," Gardner said.
"What does come as a surprise is that an official from their code would personally phone our talent, despite the fact he has several seasons left to run on his contract.
"It is inappropriate for any contact to be made from rugby union - or anyone else for that matter - and it is extremely disappointing.
"The reality is Kalyn is under contract for another two-and-a-half years with the option for a third year.
"Kalyn is a superb talent and quality person. He is a player we see being part of the Knights' fabric for years to come.
"I can assure not only Knights supporters, but fans of the game, we will be doing everything in our power to sign Kalyn long-term when the time is right."
NRL CEO Todd Greenberg described Cheika's approach as "certainly unorthodox".
"Kalyn has a significant period remaining on his contract and it would be disappointing to see any contact made to any player under these circumstances," Greenberg said.
Speaking at Randwick Rugby Club's annual luncheon in Sydney, Cheika responded on Friday by dismissing reports about his approach to Ponga as the media "just making plenty of noise".
But he stressed he also needed to protect rugby's integrity.
Asked directly if the reports were simply "hot air", Cheika said: "No, listen, I would not be doing my job if I didn't speak to the best players around and say: 'Mate, are you interested in playing?'
"Now Ponga played rugby [during his schoolboy days in New Zealand], like many players, and I think that this leads back to a different discussion about it.
"Not as much about whether I spoke to this guy or that guy or whatever, it comes back to the discussion that players who are coming through our schools are playing rugby, we need to be securing them and giving them a pathway that they want to play the game and not go and play league.
"There's a bunch of guys who are playing NRL right now who have come through the rugby schools."
Cheika received a standing ovation from the crowd when he spoke passionately about keeping the likes of Ponga in the 15-man game.
NSW State of Origin pair Angus Crichton and Cameron Murray are among the league stars killing it in the NRL after rising through the schoolboy rugby ranks.
"Let's say in the last three years there might be 12 to 15 kids who have come out of rugby schools and are playing the NRL at a good level, if you just had even a third of those who were playing rugby and were playing at the top level, that's a third of your Wallabies team who could have more competition in it," Cheika said.
"I certainly value the players we have, a lot, but competition is king. When you're fighting for your spot, you fight a lot harder."
Ponga, a star for Queensland in Origin I, has already attracted the attention of All Blacks coach Steve Hanson.
"You've got to be aware of him, he's a special player,'' Hansen said last August.
Ponga joined Newcastle at the start of last season on a four-year deal, with an option in his favour for a fifth season.
At the time of signing, he was 19 and had played two NRL games for North Queensland. His contract, reportedly worth $600,000 per annum, was described as the richest rugby league deal ever offered to a teenager.
Since then he has established himself as a freakish talent, and experts believe he could double his salary if he was on the open market.
He has scored seven tries and 32 goals in his past six games for Newcastle and shapes as one of their key weapons in Saturday's clash with Melbourne at AAMI Park.
"You watch that guy play and sometimes you wonder how you're going to stop him," Storm coach Craig Bellamy said. "I might send our halves out with a shotgun each and see how they go with that."