HE has been sensational in his two games back from shoulder surgery, but Kalyn Ponga is capable of much more.
That's the warning from Knights coach Adam O'Brien as his team prepares for Thursday's blockbuster showdown with the competition-leading Panthers at Penrith Stadium.
Ponga missed the first four games of 2021 waiting for a specialist's clearance but has since wasted no time in reminding everyone of his class.
He was easily the best of a bad bunch in Newcastle's 42-16 hammering by Gold Coast in round five, scoring a trademark try and gaining 180 metres in attack.
Then at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night, the 23-year-old fullback defied illness to score a double, including the match-winner, and set up two other tries in Newcastle's 26-22 escape act against Cronulla.
"To do what he's done in the first two weeks is remarkable," O'Brien said.
"I gave him a nine out of 10 for the weekend, but he didn't ... he was unhappy with parts of his game.
"He works really, really hard to get better every day, so I don't have a ceiling for him."
O'Brien said Ponga had shown his mental toughness in, firstly, returning from major surgery after a "shortened prep", and then by defying the illness that prompted him to vomit on the pitch several times during Friday's vital win. "To do what he did, when he was obviously crook, it's testament to his character," O'Brien said.
Unbeaten in all six games this season, Penrith are $1.10 favourites against the Knights, who are the only team the Panthers have not beaten in the past two seasons.
The two teams haven't met since their memorable 14-all golden-point draw at Leichhardt Oval last season, in the first game back after the coronavirus shut-down.
Having missed that game through suspension, Ponga shapes as Newcastle's most dangerous attacking weapon against a Penrith team who have conceded only 38 points in six games - easily the NRL's best defensive record this year.
He will no doubt feature prominently in the Panthers' game plan.
"He's looking very strong with the ball," O'Brien said of Ponga.
"He's looking fast and hard to handle, so that's something we'll need from him on Thursday night."
Heartened by Newcastle's all-round effort against Cronulla, which ended a three-game losing streak, O'Brien admitted the Panthers were likely to be another step up.
Penrith's only loss in their past 24 games was against Melbourne in last year's grand final.
"Obviously we'll need to be at our best," O'Brien said.
"I thought on the weekend we made some steps forward in starting well.
"That's vital that we go down there and start well.
"We need to match their enthusiasm, which they won't be lacking.
"I'd just like us to concentrate on not just beating Penrith, it's more about bringing the best version of ourselves.
"Our best defensive performance will be required, certainly, but we need to play a little bit with the ball, too.
"I thought we showed signs of that on the weekend."