Knights spark plug Kalyn Ponga is ready to return against the Sydney Roosters on Saturday, and said he would have played against Canterbury last Friday if Newcastle’s season hinged on the result.
The inclusion of Ponga and utility forward Mitch Barnett, who has served a three-game suspension for a crusher tackle on Melbourne’s Jahrome Hughes, should bolster a Newcastle team that have lost three of their past four games to slip to seventh.
The Queensland fullback has not played since tearing a calf muscle in Origin II in Perth on June 23. He has missed Newcastle’s back-to-back losses to the Warriors and Bulldogs in the past two weeks, and their last win against Brisbane on June 29.
“I ran today with the boys. It’s good to be back – I’m over running and doing conditioning – so to get the ball back in hand was pretty fun and it felt pretty good,” Ponga said on Monday.
“I’m pretty confident. I’m ticking all the boxes, and it felt good today which was a big thing, so I should be right.
“I’ve been doing fitness for the last three weeks, so I think the physios are happy with where I am. Today was a big one and I got through, didn’t feel it at all – it felt fine – so, yeah, I think I’m sweet.”
If Ponga had the casting vote, he would have played against the Bulldogs last Friday but coach Nathan Brown and the club’s medical staff gave him another week on the sidelines to be fully fit for the game against the defending premiers at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Saturday.
“I would have wanted to play, and I think I would have been able to play last week,” he said.
“Definitely, if it was a semi-final or a grand final, you don’t have many games to wait around, but it’s definitely fine now.
“Physically it’s been pretty hard. When you’re injured you do rehab, and they push you a little bit more, but mentally, it’s been quite nice actually … just to get my mind back to what’s important and focusing, and I’m able to play this week, which is exciting.
“It’s been hard watching the boys lose – you never like to see that – but hopefully we can bounce back and be better.”
Ponga scored a try and kicked seven goals from as many attempts when the Knights thrashed the Roosters 38-12 in Newcastle almost two months ago but Origin commitments and his calf injury have restricted him to only one club appearance since then – a 34-4 loss to Melbourne.
“We still want to go out there with the same attitude, energy and enthusiasm. That’s probably what got us the win last time,” he said.
“Everyone was so pumped up and we were all on the same page, all ready to go, so we’ve got to take that attitude to them.”
Ponga’s house-mate Connor Watson, who has bounced between hooker, five-eighth, fullback and the bench this season, expects his former Roosters team-mates to be smarting after the game in Newcastle on May 24.
Watson said the Knights had to again prove themselves as play-off contenders after recent results.
“They’re one of those teams that take things like that personally … we haven’t been where we should be lately, and we’ve been a bit down on form, so it’s a good opportunity for us to bounce back,” Watson said after training on Monday.
“These are the games that we have to win if we’re serious about playing finals footy and making a dent in the comp, so this is another big challenge for us and we’re looking forward to it.”
After their rematch with the Roosters, the Knights face Wests Tigers (home), Manly (away), Parramatta (away), North Queensland (home), Wests Tigers (away), Gold Coast (home) and Penrith (away) in the run home.
“It’s been a bit clunky with people in here and there, but that’s still not an excuse for how we’ve played. We’ve got a lot of depth now and a good squad, so we still think we should have won those three games that we lost, so it’s pretty disappointing,” Watson said.
“But it’s good now everyone’s back and we’re just focused on us ... now it’s time for us to really start gelling and turning up as a squad and building towards the finals.”