Kalyn Ponga isn’t worth $1.5 million a season. Not even close.
He’s a freakish talent who has interest from just about every rugby league club in the world, while the coaches of both the Wallabies and All Blacks have spoken – directly and indirectly – of their desire to see him in their respective sides.
“AFL are interested in him too and probably car racing, too,” Nathan Brown joked this week.
“I think he’s got a lot more to achieve in the game and when he’s done he might take up cricket.”
Add to the fact Ponga’s a good-looking young fella – straddling the divide between Gens Y and Z, in fact, so he’s marketable to a wide audience – with the right attitude and a laid-back approach to life and sport, and you’ve got the complete package.
So $1.5 million a year is basically insulting. The boom fullback should be on way more money.
(See what I did there? “By now, you may have guessed I’m speaking ironically and have nothing but good things to say about what you do.”)
But the NRL is the NRL, so there are limitations in place.
I’m an advocate for the salary cap. It does a pretty good job of evening out talent and ensuring a select few clubs don’t dominate the competition decade after decade.
Granted, the Roosters and Storm are crushing it at the moment, but since 1993, there have been 14 different grand final winners.
I chose that year as it coincided with the first champions of the Premier League being crowned – and in the corresponding time, there have been just six clubs with their ribbons attached to that particular trophy.
Not for nothing either, but while Chelsea and Manchester City have won the Prem multiple times, their periods of success came after significant injections of funds compliments of billionaires buying them.
What’s more, the reason Leicester City’s victory is the sporting story of the decade is because of how ridiculously improbable it was.
The NRL salary cap, imperfect though it is, works by spreading talent and therefore giving fans hope that their team – no matter how badly they perform – could be just a few short years away from the ultimate glory.
If you want evidence, look no further than Newcastle.
Three wooden spoons in a row were tough, but with a bit of smart recruitment, barely 18 months after that historic lean patch the club was humming along as one of the form sides in the competition. People in the Hunter were daring to dream of what was possible this October.
And leading the charge from distant hope to genuine belief was Ponga.
The smartest piece of recruitment of all, KP was signed for a rumoured sum of $600,000 a season. Initially it was seen as a huge gamble – that’s a lot of coin for a teenager who’d played two first-grade games – but with Ponga having established himself as a rep player, it’s actually been a total bargain.
And apparently Ponga’s management now want a bit of back-end appreciation, hence the $1.5 million-a-season price tag.
Ultimately, if you add $600K for two seasons, he’s averaging $1.2 million a year over six years. That’s the kind of pay packet Daly Cherry-Evans and Ben Hunt are rumoured to be on, so it’s not unheard of.
But, freakish though he is, he wasn’t worth that kind of money when he arrived at Turton Road – in fact, the only reason he came was because the struggling Knights blew every other offer out of the water.
An upgraded deal was certainly on the cards – I argued almost a year ago to the day that he should have been bumped up to the two-comma club from this season on – but $1.5 million is, well, it’s a spicy meatball, isn’t it?
The way I see it, it’s one of three potential moves.
The first – and let’s get the worst one out of the way – is to lay down a ridiculous sum that Knights CEO Phil Gardner and Co. will knock back, giving Ponga’s management the ability to say, “Well, they wouldn’t come to the table, that’s why KP’s going to the Roosters.”
(As per usual, no inside baseball here – just that Nick Politis always seem to find cap space for another million-dollar star.)
I’d say that’s not the case though, as Ponga’s signed for another two years after this and the Knights aren’t going to let him go early.
The second is that they’re playing the oldest tactic in the negotiating book: start high. You can’t ask for 800K a season then kick stones when you don’t get a million bucks – you’ve got to ask for too much, have a bit of back and forth, then end up on a mutually agreeable sum.
That’s probably what’s happening here. Probably.
However, the third move is almost as likely.
Ponga’s rep, Wayde Rushton, realises he’s got a once-in-a-generation talent on his books – which, for the record, he definitely does, with Ponga front and centre on the Rush Sports homepage – and therefore wants to rewrite salary cap history.
Ceteris paribus, Ponga will be the face of the Knights – possibly the game – for the next decade. He may not have represented his country or won a grand final yet, but ability-wise he’s up there with DCE and is far more marketable than the Manly half.
Rushton is asking $1.5 million because that’s what Ponga is worth to the club.
Importantly, if option three is in play, it recreates what is expected for your marquee man – Ponga won’t be the only player banking that kind of coin for long, and thus the Knights won’t be the only club dealing with the problem of having to balance their books with one bloke taking up more than 15 per cent of total cap space.
Is it going to create salary cap headaches down the line? You bet. Is it a problem the Knights can afford to deal with? Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether the club can afford to let him go.
Because if $1.5 million is what Ponga genuinely wants, he’ll get it somewhere. And Newcastle will have significantly fewer fans in the Andrew Johns Stand if Kalyn Ponga is snapping ankles wearing another club’s jersey.