Kalyn Ponga made a spectacular return from a groin injury at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday night, inspiring Newcastle to a 38-0 shutout of his former club North Queensland while proving himself fit for a State of Origin recall for the Maroons.
Ponga had not played for two months, missing Newcastle’s previous six games plus the first two Origin encounters, but showed no ill effects against the Cowboys to lead the Knights to back-to-back wins for only the second time this year.
The dynamic fullback scored two tries, both from Dominic Young passes, and returned the favour by sending the 19-year-old English winger over for two tries in the second half.
Ponga spent the last four minutes on the sideline after copping an accidental knee to the back of the head from Valentine Holmes - the man he will likely replace at the back for Queensland.
Match: Knights v Cowboys
Round 16 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
“It doesn’t feel like it’s anything too wrong, just a little bit stiff,” Ponga told reporters after the game.
“I didn’t feel the groin, which I’m really pleased about. I didn’t feel it at all.
“It’s been a bit of a tough one with my groin, just because of the injury that it is, so high on the tendon. I just took it day by day and had full trust in the physios, and I felt good leading into this game.
“I’m pretty happy with how I felt out there in terms of my body and my fitness and everything, so I’m pretty happy with today.”
Neck fine, groin fine, now Ponga sets sights on spoiling Blues' party
Though the Maroons have already lost the Origin series, Ponga is expected to be rushed back for the third game on July 14. That match is scheduled for Stadium Australia but could be switched to another venue, possibly Newcastle, if COVID restrictions remain in place for Sydney.
Ponga said he was looking forward to returning to the Origin arena, especially if the game is in Newcastle, having not played since game two in Perth in 2019.
He said if he was selected, he would do all he could to help Queensland avoid a NSW clean sweep but, for now, was enjoying a win in his first game for Newcastle since May 8.
“It’s been seven weeks since I’ve played, so to be out there with the boys after seven weeks, it feels pretty good, so I’ll savour this moment then come tomorrow or whenever we get into camp, I’ll switch on for that,” he said.
“There was a period in the second half, I felt we needed to be better, but I could sort of tell from the first kick-off that we were on, the way J-Saf (Jacob Saifiti) carried the ball, and just the feeling out there was pretty good, so I was just happy to get out there again, to be honest.”
Welcome back, Kalyn Ponga
Avenging a 36-20 loss to the Cowboys in Townsville on May 20, Newcastle’s seven-tries-to-nil victory pushed the Knights (14 points) past the Cowboys (14) on for-and-against to ninth, ahead of the Titans, Raiders and Warriors (all 12).
It was Newcastle’s biggest win since they defeated Wests Tigers 44-4 last August and they will collect another two points from a bye next weekend before a trip to AAMI Park to challenge premiership pace-setters Melbourne on July 17.
In his first game this season playing alongside Mitchell Pearce, Jake Clifford and Jayden Brailey, as part of Newcastle’s first-choice spine, Ponga scored two tries in the first half to help the Knights build a 22-0 lead by the break.
Ponga carves the Cowboys up to send Young over
“We’ve waited a long time. That particular spine, minus Jake, we haven’t had that since round two last year,” Knights coach Adam O’Brien told reporters.
“This fella (Ponga) and Mitchell, they’ve hardly passed the ball to each other, so we’re really happy with the win, then we get next week off, so we’ll hopefully get some more training done.”
O’Brien said Ponga’s presence on the training paddock was as important as the skill he provides in games, and the positive influence he has on his teammates.
“There’s a steely edge to him at training. He doesn’t accept sub-standard performances at training, he pulls guys up, so he’s an exceptional leader for us there,” the coach said.
“I think everybody’s more confident when you’ve got him out there with you, and I’d imagine he’s going to be a huge asset for Queensland.”
Prop Jacob Saifiti, who was the only single try-scorer after Ponga, Young and utility Connor Watson scored two each, was replaced midway through the second half after suffering a shoulder injury but O’Brien was confident it was not serious.
It was the first time the Knights have held their opponents scoreless since a 12-0 victory over the Cowboys on August 23 last year, and came after Newcastle held the Warriors to just one try in a 10-6 win at McDonald Jones Stadium two weeks earlier.
“I thought our goal-line D was probably the highlight for our performance,” O’Brien said.
Ponga is bringing out all the tricks now
“I thought this bloke (Ponga) did a really good job at setting our line and got himself into some really good positions at the back there and was nice and safe.
“But I thought we moved really well on our try-line and we looked comfortable, and that was the thing that stood out for me.
“I was a little bit disappointed with how we started our second half. We started a little bit fluffy there – whether we let the scoreboard dictate us there – but we regrouped, and I thought there were some really good defensive efforts across the board …
“We didn’t always get it right system-wise, but we had enough guys in the picture urgency-wise, so I liked that.”