Win or lose against North Queensland at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday, Newcastle fullback Kalyn Ponga will try not to smile when he shakes hands with his friends and former Cowboys team-mates on the field after full-time.
Ponga was crash-tackled for doing just that after Newcastle’s 20-14 loss to Parramatta at BankWest Stadium last Saturday, which almost certainly ended their finals hopes.
Premiership-winning former Knights captain Andrew Johns was one of many commentators who voiced their disapproval, and some Newcastle fans took to social media to question Ponga’s commitment to the cause after the team’s sixth straight loss.
Ponga addressed that issue, and reports that he wants an upgraded four-year contract worth $6 million to stay at the Knights, at a media conference in Newcastle on Wednesday.
“Don’t smile too much if I see my mates apparently,” a smiling Ponga told reporters.
“I haven’t seen a lot of them for a while. ‘Cliffo’, Jake Clifford, he’s playing first grade and I love that, [but] I’ll try not to smile too much if I see them.”
Ponga was being disarming, rather than condescending, in case anyone misinterprets his expression.
“For me, if I’m training hard and playing hard and giving it my all, if I smile for two or three minutes after the game with a couple of mates, I don’t think that hurts,” Ponga explained.
“I think people know what I’m like, or the people who know what I’m like know that I was just seeing my mates and I hadn’t seen them for a while, then straight afterwards I was disappointed.
“I’ve heard some comments and whatnot, but I guess everyone’s different, and also everyone’s opinion is different on it, so for me, I was just happy to see my mates for a little bit.”
Ponga revealed he was still coming to terms with the Eels loss 72 hours later, but some time with his family had cleared his head and sharpened his focus for the game against the Cowboys.
“It was pretty hard not to dwell on the game from the weekend,” he said.
“Even yesterday, I was still thinking about it, but I’m pretty over it now. I went away from training yesterday and went and hung out with my family, and I’m ready to go again.
“I guess it is a little bit of how I deal with things, but in saying that, I was pretty disappointed with the weekend.”
The 21-year-old Queensland Origin representative is still learning to live with his status as one of the game’s superstars, but said he was aware of his responsibilities and the extra scrutiny he attracted, even if he sometimes wondered what all the fuss was about.
“I’m not too sure, I haven’t really thought about it in that way, but I know that obviously a lot of people are watching and you’ve got to be careful about what you do and what you say, and I think I am pretty careful,” he said.
“I don’t really do anything too wrong. Smiling with a mate after a game is not such a bad thing, but that’s just the way it is and just a part of it, I guess.”
As for the latest speculation about his future, Ponga insisted he knew nothing of any substance behind a report by Fox Sports last week that his management team was seeking an upgraded deal that would pay him $1.5 million a season to stay at Newcastle for the next four years.
“On that topic, I don’t really know anything about that,” he said.
“I haven’t spoken to the club or my manager about numbers or time. For me, I’m always the same, I just want to focus on this week, especially now when it’s make or break.
“There’s nothing really else to focus on. I can’t really focus on next year or the year after or the year after that, because we’ve only got four weeks left.”
Ponga is already contracted to the Knights until the end of 2021, and will reportedly earn close to $1.5 million over the next two years.
But how did he react when he heard he was reportedly seeking $1.5 million a season?
“I laughed. It’s a big number,” he said.
“But to be honest, I’ve never spoken or heard about that [with] Mum and Dad, my manager, I haven’t spoken about any of that, so I was probably just as shocked as what you guys were…
“I don’t know how you define someone worth $1.5 million. What do you reckon?”
Ponga has been disappointed with his own form of late but wants to turn that around in the next four weeks, starting with a win against his old club on Saturday.
Newcastle’s leading scorer pulled off a try-saving tackle on Clint Gutherson last Saturday, and his cross-field kick led to a try for winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall, but some of his attacking spark has been dulled as opposing teams concentrate their defensive effort on shutting him down.
“The frustrating thing is, you try harder but it just doesn’t seem to come off,” he said.
“The more you try, the worse it seems to get, so that’s the frustrating part ... Myself, I’m a little bit disappointed but I’ve got this weekend.
“We’ve just got to win. We’ve got to find a way to win. We’re trying hard and everything, but we’ve just got to make it click.”