‘Stepper against stepper!’
And so, after just two-and-a-bit games, it appears the Knights’ experiment playing Kalyn Ponga at 6 is over.
Ponga’s shift into the halves was the most publicised intra-team movement of the offseason.
With good cause too, the young fullback’s breakout 2018 seeing him named the Players’ Champion and being just a busted ankle away from becoming the youngest Dally M Medal winner in history.
But after defending like an old warhorse at lock in his debut Origin appearance, and with Newcastle’s halves combination failing to fire, it was decided that maybe the best thing for the team was shifting Ponga to five-eighth.
What’s more, rather than having it foisted upon him, the young champion reportedly asked the coach to move him into the frontline for the good of the team.
A month into the season, however, KP is wearing the No.1 jersey again – and he played the back half of the Knights’ loss to Canberra as custodian too.
All that said, it would be a glib interpretation to simply say that that the Ponga experiment has been a failure.
For starters, who else was Nathan Brown going to name at fullback against St George Illawarra?
Connor Watson – who hasn’t set the world on fire but hasn’t done much wrong at the back either – is still on the injured list.
As for Kurt Mann, who played 1 last week, the fact he got hooked from the role against the Raiders shows that while he’s a solid first-grader, he’s not a fullback.
Other than that, stocks are pretty thin (truth be told, Mann getting a run was a shock to most in the first place).
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings for his first crack in red and blue was Mason Lino, who showed during his years at the Warriors he can absolutely do a job in the halves – and, not for nothing, he’s the incumbent halfback for Samoa.
With the team’s first-choice fullback on crutches and with the back-up having failed to fire, doesn’t it just make sense to move Kalyn to 1 and give Lino a whirl?
If Lino puts on a show, then you’d probably say Ponga to five-eighth is on indefinite hiatus (here in the Hunter, we call it ‘doing a Silverchair’).
But if Lino fails to fire, then you have to wonder what Brown will do when Watson is ready to play again.
Do you go back to 2019’s Plan A – Ponga at 6 and Watson at 1 – which yielded a tight win over the Sharks and a narrow loss to Penrith? Or revert to 2018’s Plan A – Watson at 6 and Ponga at 1 – which saw the team finish 11th?
I’m not willing to say that the experiment is over for 2019 just yet.
But even if it is, well, let’s all remember that Ponga turned 21 literally a week ago (I believe the kids would say “HB KP”), and has played a grand total of 32 first-grade games.
The fact he can do things with his hands and feet that few others in the history of rugby league could, and that he seems to have a mature head on his shoulders, distract from the fact he is very much at the start of his career.
Comparisons to Darren Lockyer were inevitable, the future Immortal providing the model of how a move from fullback to five-eighth can all go so well.
But these comparisons should also take into account that when Locky made the switch from 1 to 6 for Brisbane, he was 27 years old, playing his tenth season of first grade, already had four premierships under his belt and had won a stack of Origin series and Tests.
In short, he had long been established as the club’s leader and was their out-and-out best player (no small feat when you’re talking the early 2000s Broncos).
The pressure was on Locky, for sure, but he had the experience to handle it and commanded enough respect that a few rough games – and people forget, there were rough games – were allowed to slide.
It also makes it easier when you’re playing in a team of absolute superstars, and your replacement as custodian is a future dual-international named Karmichael Hunt.
KP and Locky? Chalk and cheese.
In short, even if Kalyn Ponga isn’t seen wearing 6 again this year, you’d be a fool to say it’s never going to happen.
Rather than a case of ‘not a five-eighth’, the smart money says Ponga’s ‘not yet a five-eighth’.