FROM the moment Kalyn Ponga first touched the ball while wearing a Newcastle Knights jersey, the opposition made it clear what he could expect.
Barely six tackles into Ponga's debut for Newcastle, in round one of 2018, Manly hoisted a bomb, and no sooner had the rookie fullback safely defused it than Sea Eagles centre Brian Kelly rattled him with a high shot, conceding a penalty.
A few minutes later, Ponga brought a 23,516-strong crowd to their feet when he produced a dazzling goosestep and scythed through Manly's defensive line to score what would be the first of many tries for the Knights.
After the game, which finished as a memorable golden-point triumph for Newcastle, then Knights coach Nathan Brown offered some prophetic words about Ponga's performance.
Brown noted that Ponga "still wanted the ball" after Kelly's tackle, before adding: "It's going to get a lot harder for Kalyn before it gets easier.
"He's such a gifted young player and there's a lot of hype, and there's going to be plenty of sides that are going to look to kick high and give him plenty of stick."
Fifty-five games down the track, the treatment Ponga receives at the hands of rival teams has become a recurring theme.
In last week's 38-10 thrashing of Cronulla, the 22-year-old copped a broken nose after what appeared an accidental swinging arm, then was on the receiving end of a shoulder charge that resulted in Sharks halfback Chad Townsend being sent off and suspended.
It's not the first time the judiciary has handed out sanctions for foul play against Ponga.
In 2018, Cronulla's Luke Lewis and Wade Graham both pleaded guilty to dangerous-contact tackles on Newcastle's No.1. Last season Manly's Curtis Sironen escaped suspension after pleading guilty to a grade-one careless high tackle on Ponga, while Roosters enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves copped a two-game ban after being charged with grade-one dangerous contact to Ponga's head/neck.
Two months ago, Ponga found himself on the wrong end of three dubious incidents involving Parramatta centre Waqa Blake, who was placed on report for a late hit but avoided suspension.
All of which prompted new Knights coach Adam O'Brien to speak out after the win against Cronulla.
"He's a tough kid," O'Brien said.
"For what he cops - and he cops it every week - they're looking to take his head off and get stuck into him. But he kept fighting all the way, and I'm really proud of him. He's only a 22-year-old kid."
It was the second time this year O'Brien voiced concerns about Ponga's well-being, after he suffered consecutive head knocks playing against Manly and the Eels when he was clipped in mid-air while trying to field high kicks.
As O'Brien noted this week, Ponga never complains and realises that being targeted by the opposition is actually "a badge of honour".
He is certainly not the first playmaker to attract extra attention.
It was only a few years ago, after all, that the boot was on the other foot, when Knights nigglers Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith came under scrutiny for repeatedly roughing up North Queensland maestro Johnathan Thurston.
Every team in the NRL tries to make life as uncomfortable as possible for their opposition's key players.
But few individuals in the game would appear as vulnerable as Ponga.
For starters, he's a fullback, which means he can be isolated and manhandled every time a rival team launches a high ball or a grubber into the in-goal.
Moreover, not many fullbacks possess Ponga's ability as a ball distributor, which also puts him regularly in the firing line.
And while he enjoyed the last laugh against Cronulla, scoring the first hat-trick of his career, there have been games this year in which Newcastle struggled largely because the opposition managed to nullify Ponga.
The 32-20 loss to the Cowboys in Townsville 10 weeks ago was a case in point.
Teams know that if they can keep Ponga quiet - whatever it takes - it will go a long way towards beating Newcastle. Alternatively, when he's on song, he can dominate any game.
And perhaps therein lies the crux of the issue.
If the Knights didn't rely so heavily on Ponga's magical skills, maybe opponents wouldn't devote so much time and energy into singling him out.
Injuries to Bradman Best, Edrick Lee, Connor Watson and Sione Mata'utia, admittedly, have combined to leave Newcastle's strikepower severely depleted.
Put them all back on the team sheet, and suddenly Newcastle's opposition will have a lot more to worry about than just the bloke in the No.1 jersey.
The best-case scenario is that the Knights have so many attacking options their opponents can't afford to target any individual.
The other point worth noting is that while Cronulla hit Ponga with everything bar the kitchen sink last week, it didn't produce the desired outcome.
If anything, it seemed to spur him on.
The ultimate deterrent might not be the judiciary, or angry teammates stepping in to defend Ponga.
It might be as simple as rival teams realising that there is no point taking any liberties, simply because it makes KP play even better.
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