It’s been over five years since rugby league unveiled their first million dollar man, a bloke by the name of Jonathan Thurston. And now, half a decade later, one of his former team mates could potentially become the first player to earn double that.
Kalyn Ponga has only played one full season in the NRL, but despite only being 20 years old, has already announced himself as one of the competition’s premier players.
In fact, the fullback-turned-five-eighth polled 27 Dally M points, finishing second place behind eventual winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who finished the season with 29 points.
And Ponga played three games less than Tuivasa-Sheck in 2018.
With the NRL’s rich television deal, the salary cap has been increasing slowly but steadily over time.
When Thurston signed a contract in 2012 to become rugby league’s first seven figure earner, the salary cap stood $5.85 million for the 2013 season, the first year of Thurston’s million dollar contract.
That means in 2013, Jonathan Thurston was earning 17% of the club’s salary cap. He didn’t start earning seven figures until his 12th year in first grade.
With the 2020 salary cap set to increase to $9.8 million, a $2 million contract would equate to about 21% of a team’s salary cap.
But Ponga is unlike any player we’ve seen in recent years.
While his breakout season will be remembered for the side steps, the speed, the 20 metre cut out passes produced consistently by a 20-year-old, there’s a different moment that stands out.
Ponga made his Queensland State of Origin debut in Game II of the series, coming off the bench. And while his attacking game was on song, it was his defence that elevated Ponga’s potential.
Normally playing fullback at club level, Ponga spent 50 minutes of Origin football playing at lock in the middle third. Fullbacks are only ever required to make five, six tackles a game.
Ponga was forced to make 30. And they weren’t ‘third man in’, their were one-on-one tackles. On props.
And when asked about the difference in intensity between club football and Origin football post game?
“I couldn’t feel a difference.”
The kid is something else. Simple as that.
Thurston didn’t even become a regular starter until he joined North Queensland in 2005, his fourth season in the NRL.
Ponga signed a five-year deal with Newcastle commencing in 2018, however it appears a portion of the contract is ‘player option’, meaning it’s entirely Ponga’s decision whether to activate those years.
And with his earning potential set to increase more and more from the estimated $600,000 he’s currently earning, there’s a fair chance he won’t activate those years.
Rugby league contracts carry a different perception to what they did five years ago. When Thurston signed his first million-dollar contract, clubs based a players salary on the quality of the player at the time.
Now, clubs pay players based on what they estimate they’d be worth at the end of their contract. They pay for potential.
And with Ponga entertaining interest to switch codes and become an All Black, the Newcastle Knights, or another NRL club, need to act fast and ensure that Ponga remains in rugby league.
The NRL’s first $2 million contract will be history making, but with Ponga so talented at such a young age, he’s certain to create history in the sport. You can only imagine how much Ponga will have improved by the conclusion of his next long term contract.
You can only imagine that he’ll justify whatever price tag is written on that contract.