OTHER than the fact he struck gold by signing a five-season deal reportedly worth more than $1 million per annum, it's been a challenging year for Kalyn Ponga.
The Newcastle Knights have won only three of the 12 matches in which their skipper has played and appear all but dead and buried in the finals race, with 10 matches still remaining.
He has suffered a knee injury, three head knocks, and twice played under duress with illness.
And all the while Newcastle's fans, and his teammates, are looking for him to provide the inspiration and moments of magic that are expected from one of the NRL's highest-paid players.
But tomorrow night the 24-year-old fullback gets a chance to put all the frustration and disappointment of clubland to one side and live out a childhood dream by helping Queensland wrap up the 2022 State of Origin series. The Maroons are leading 1-0 after their 16-10 triumph against NSW in Sydney 17 days ago and can clinch the title with a victory at Perth's Optus Stadium.
Ponga has now played in five Origins, spread across four series, but is yet to help Queensland lift the trophy.
He won't get a better chance to tick that box, and in the process confirm that he is worth every cent of his lucrative salary, than by stamping his authority on the game's ultimate arena.
Ponga had a significant impact in Origin I, producing a try assist for Valentine Holmes and carrying the ball 122 metres, and a repeat performance in game two might, indirectly, be of benefit to the Knights.
"This is an opportunity to grow, and then when I go back to Newcastle hopefully take something back with me," he said.
Ponga formed a deadly combination with man-of-the-match Cameron Munster in Origin I and they again shape as the main threats NSW will have to contain.
"I wouldn't mind Munny getting the ball as much as we can," Ponga said.
"But it's about all of us doing our job, not just expecting him to do something. Hopefully we can create some opportunities."
Queensland coach Billy Slater, a former champion fullback himself, has been impressed with Ponga's growth as a leader since making his Origin debut in 2018, as a raw 20-year-old.
"The fullback has to be a leader as the voice at the back in attack and defence," Ponga said. "It's something I've been working on the last few years."
Queensland trained in Perth for the first time on Friday after spending the start of the week in camp on the Gold Coast. While Ponga was born in Port Hedland, he has few fond memories of his last trip across the Nullabor, after Queensland copped a 38-6 hammering in game two of the 2019 series.
"I'm not sure what the score was, but it wasn't pretty," he said.
AAP reports: NSW coach Brad Fittler lost the series opener in Sydney and must now overcome a 28-year hoodoo if the Blues are to continue their dominance under his coaching tenure.
Queensland's 16-10 victory in Sydney earlier this month has left Fittler needing to overcome an unwanted record stretching back to 1994 if the Blues are to win the series.
Only once in Origin history have NSW lost a series opener on home soil and come back to win the series.
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