THE return of electrifying fullback Kalyn Ponga inspired the Newcastle Knights to a much-needed 38-0 triumph against North Queensland Cowboys at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night.
After back-to-back victories against the Warriors and Cowboys, the Knights have climbed from 13th to ninth on the points table. But Newcastle are yet to receive two points for the bye and their season tally of seven wins from 16 starts is the eighth-best in the NRL.
Ponga, who had missed six games with a groin injury, wasted no time in showing his class upon return, opening the scoring with a try in the third minute.
He added a second try in the 27th minute - both after passes from winger Dominic Young - in a performance that Queensland coach Paul Green will surely have noted before he names his team for Origin III.
It was Ponga's first game since he scored a try and kicked four goals in Newcastle's 24-16 comeback win against Canberra on May 8.
The return of his dynamic No.1 allowed Newcastle coach Adam O'Brien to pick his first-choice spine - Ponga, Mitchell Pearce, Jayden Brailey and Jake Clifford - for the first time this season, and the improvement in their attack was immediate.
It was the first time this season they had scored 20 points in a half of football.
Newcastle's other first-half tries came from prop Jacob Saifiti and bench utility Connor Watson.
Ponga repaid his debt to Young in the second half, producing two try assists for the towering English winger with a final pass and cross-field kick respectively.
Watson became the third Newcastle player to score a double in the game when he dived over in the 77th minute.
Ponga finished the game four minutes early after being replaced for a head-injury assessment, although he seemed to recover quickly.
The Knights have the bye this week before tackling premiers Melbourne on July 17.
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