This is the 24th article in the (marathon) ongoing series where we remember some of the forgotten players from your favourite club.
Following on from Parts 1 and 2, here’s some more NRL identities with a point to prove.
Whether it’s playing footy, hitting a one wood down the middle of a fairway, riding a skateboard or flipping off a roof into a pool, Kalyn Ponga is just brilliant at everything he turns his hand to.
His first game in the NRL – in a semi final against the Broncos, no less – had everyone reaching for superlatives. His raw speed and ability to change direction at pace were breathtaking.
In 2018 Ponga started the season brilliantly for the Knights who won five of their first eight and found themselves entrenched in the top eight.
Heady heights indeed, following three wooden spoons. Ponga himself was flying and picked on the bench for Queensland in the second Origin game.
He came onto the field, nominally playing the unfamiliar role of lock but handed a roving commission by Kevin Walters and almost won the Maroons the game with a stunning line break.
The wheels fell off a little with Ponga experiencing a bit of a post Origin slump and struggling with injury. The Knights won only four of their last 16.
Come 2019 and Nathan Brown decided to switch Ponga to the front line. While disaster may be overstating it, the move wasn’t successful and the Knights started poorly, winning only one of their first six.
Brown bit the bullet, moved Ponga back to fullback and the Knights fortunes changed immediately, going on a dominant seven-from-eight streak with some big victories – most notably a 26-point demolition of the Roosters.
But again the Knights’ and Ponga’s seasons crumbled post Origin, with the Knights finishing 11th and Brown losing his job.
There’s no doubting Ponga’s skills, but there’s more to forging a successful NRL career than natural talent and that’s what Ponga needs to prove now. It’s not necessarily all his fault but the big money move to Newcastle, the move to five-eighth and back, the constant All Black talk, ongoing contract negotiations and the late season fade outs have people questioning Ponga’s focus and whether he has the desire to become a consistent top line NRL star.
Like some of the other players on this list, Ash Taylor is a young halfback trying to make a name for himself. Unlike a lot of those guys, Taylor is already on big money and under even bigger pressure.
After Daly Cherry-Evans turned his back on the Gold Coast, the Titans found themselves throwing big money at Taylor to fend off the advances of the Broncos Broncos.
Taylor is now into his third Titans coach since signing his million-dollar deal in 2017. While he’s outlasted them, he’s also contributed to their demise with over ten per cent of the salary cap committed to one player who to date has returned little.
Taylor has been criticised for being overweight and playing like he wished he was somewhere else.
Did I mention pressure? It got so much for Taylor that he took a six month sabbatical in 2019, playing only ten games for the Titans. He’s still contracted for the 2021 season but it feels like this is the make or break year for the Toowoomba product.
Moses Mbye was named Tigers’ captain and played all three Origin games for Queensland in 2019 so it may seem odd to suggest he’s got a point to prove.
However, he’s also yet to nail down a position in the NRL, despite entering his seventh season. He started in the halves at the Bulldogs, before being shifted to fullback.
He came to the Tigers as a fullback but spent a lot of last year in the centres. There’s talk of him playing hooker in 2020.
Mbye is an intelligent, articulate and thoughtful player about the game. He’s athletic and talented. But more often than not he seems to lack the confidence or killer instinct to take control of the game – the eye of the tiger, if you will.
He can be frustrating to have playing for your team. Cruising for weeks, then suddenly has a big game and you think “he’s got it!” but then he’s back into cruise mode.
Additionally, Mbye was one of Des’ Dogs deals. Mbye was signed until the end of 2020 on a contract rumoured to be worth $750k a season, but heavily back-ended.
The Tigers have him signed him until the end of this season with the Bulldogs still picking up a lot of the freight. For a new deal to be anything like the coin he’s on now, Mbye needs a big season.
Questions would normally start being asked of a coaches future when he’d had six years in charge of a club marked by only two semi final appearances and a 47 per cent win rate – see Paul McGregor.
But Brad Arthur’s situation is a little different. He’s had to oversee two massive overhauls of the club and its roster. Arthur came into the job in 2014 straight on the back of consecutive wooden spoons and guided the Eels to tenth in his first season.
Things were definitely looking up by 2016. Some big name signings, victory in the nines and a 6-3 start to the season which saw them in second place were brought undone when systematic salary cap breaches were discovered.
The breaches cost the Eels Kieran Foran, Nathan Peats, Junior Paulo and Anthony Watmough among others.
Again Arthur turned things around quickly with the Eels making the semi-finals in 2017 before ‘winning’ the wooden spoon in 2018.
2019 saw the Eels return to semi final footy with the Eels finishing fifth. The pressure on Arthur is to avoid these up and down seasons where the Eels seem to be a victim of circumstance rather than controlling their destiny.