I’m going to let you all in on the secret deal we’ve got here in Newcastle.
It’s pretty straightforward: whatever Kalyn Ponga says or does, just go with it.
A few people have slipped up, like when the then-teenager posted a photo on Instagram in January of himself doing a flip from a roof into a pool.
The pic caused a bit of a storm and has since been taken down because people didn’t want the kid injuring himself before the season kicked off.
“Good to see you enjoying yourself Kalyn but you need to remember your (sic) committed to the Knights so you need to tone down the acrobatics,” one fan, Ryan Marshall, commented.
Fair comment from Ryan, but these days, if Kalyn wants to do flips into a pool – hell, if he wants to cartwheel naked down Hunter St – we all just cheer him on (to be clear, I’m not saying we’re accommodating a dickhead who’s taking advantage. Based on all reports, as well as my super limited experience with the guy, he’s a polite and respectful young man).
And it’s not just the fans – the bigwigs at the Knights are in on the deal too.
Following his side’s win over the Panthers on the weekend, a game in which Ponga moved from his usual fullback role to five-eighth, coach Nathan Brown was asked where the young gun would play in the future.
“It’s more a question for Kalyn than it is for me,” Brown replied.
“Obviously I’m the coach but he’s only early in his career and he did come to us to play fullback…but he’s a good footy player so I’m not sure it matters where we put him, who coaches him, or what club he plays for.”
That’s right Browny, it’s up to Kalyn. Toe the line.
Then, during an interview this week, Ponga revealed he might like to play for the All Blacks one day.
Fair enough, he’s only young, grew up in New Zealand, and played plenty of the 15-man code in high school. But a statement like that should have alarm bells ringing in head office, right?
Nup. Well, not really, with Knights CEO Phil Gardner saying “we want what is best for Kalyn and will support whatever decision he makes”.
“I’m sure that for three years he is going to give his best for Newcastle and try to achieve everything possible that he can here, which means winning a premiership, playing Origin for Queensland and playing for Australia,” Gardner told the Newcastle Herald.
“Once he’s achieved all those goals, there might be other things he wants to do…
“But we’ll certainly be doing everything in our power to get him to stay with us.”
Good work, Phil – navigated that like a true pro.
But in the interest of getting Ponga to stay in red and blue, how about turning those three years into ten, and “winning a premiership” into winning several?
When the Knights signed Ponga on a four-year deal, said to be worth $600,000 a year with bonuses, it was considered a pretty big gamble. He was an 18-year-old who had played two NRL matches.
But the season he’s put together – which has included making his Origin debut and sitting third on the Dally M Medal leaderboard when votes went behind closed doors – has people calling him a bargain buy.
And he was a bargain – if he was on the open market at the end of this season, he’d be commanding a seven-figure salary.
But the Knights would be fools to treat him like a bargain for the next three years. Rather, they should go back to the negotiating table in November with the chequebook open.
Tell the kid he’s worth a million a year – minimum – and that they want to pay him it.
But, in return, they want a bigger commitment. Ten years might be a bit much for a 20-year-old to agree to – that’s an agreement of half his lifetime to date – but certainly, five or six more should be the shortest term put forward.
It may sound drastic, but when you come across a talent as rare and special as Kalyn Ponga, drastic measures are within a club’s remit to ensure he sticks around.
Besides, as the Knights have learnt time and again over the last few years, marquee players just don’t want to come to the club. Sure, Mitchell Pearce made the move to the Hunter, but the combination of factors that led to him becoming a free agent aren’t likely to repeat any time soon.
However, NRL stars’ reluctance to move to the greatest city ever (you idiots, you don’t even know) could change if Newcastle boast a player of Ponga’s calibre as being on the books for the foreseeable future. Rather than having to rely on Tanya Brown’s famous butter chicken to get prospective signings on-board, the club could also point out what an amazing opportunity it is to run out each week alongside one of the best players in the comp.
The Knights have solid finances, are in the process of building a $20 million centre of excellence, and continue to attract some of the strongest home crowds in the NRL.
But none of that matters much if the team isn’t winning.
Newcastle will avoid the wooden spoon for the first time since 2014 this season, which is great, but top-eight footy has to be the norm – however, since Andrew Johns retired in 2007, the club have played in the finals an abysmal three times.
I won’t ruin Ponga’s career by giving him the dreaded ‘next Joey’ tag, but he’s the man the club can build a successful team around – however, real success lasts longer than three years.
At just 20 years of age, the scariest thing about Kalyn Ponga is that he’s not even in his prime yet. He will be the best player in the game in the coming years – he’s already in the conversation for it now.
Newcastle should pay him accordingly and lock him up long-term.