After spending an entire pre-season in the halves with Mitchel Pearce, Knights coach Nathan Brown has shifted Kalyn Ponga back to fullback three rounds into the experiment.
Which begs the question, what was the point of all that?
I know it is very easy for someone who is not under the constant scrutiny and pressure of an NRL coach, but as a head coach in the NRL you can’t doubt yourself, and it has become painfully evident only three rounds into 2019 that Nathan Brown has.
It must be mentioned that Brown has the proverbial axe floating over his head more so than other NRL coaches, thanks to his recently signed performance-based contract extension that does not specify any duration of time. So, the pressure to get the right results and quickly is well and truly on the former Dragons mentor.
Thanks to his freakish natural abilities, there is a very good chance that Ponga will once again excel at fullback after being named to start there against the Dragons, but who’s to say he would not have done the same at five-eighth?
One thing that has not been considered amongst all the calls to put the 2018 RLPA Player’s Champion back to No. 1 is the effect it will have on the players around him. Ponga spent an entire pre-season forging combinations at five-eighth with the players around him, and now in the space of less than a week, those players will have to reset and combine with a completely different five-eighth with a different style of play and attacking instincts.
While Mason Lino has been named to line up at five-eighth against the Dragons, this seems to be due to the absence of Connor Watson, who sustained a minor knee injury against the Panthers. With Ponga’s move back to No. 1 locked in for the immediate future, this will most likely result in Watson wearing the six again. Which if you do not remember, didn’t go too well last season.
While Watson has a very good running game, averaging 106 running meters per game in season 2018, his game management at five-eighth leaves a lot to be desired. Watson has more career tries (16) than try assists (10), which indicates a propensity for running the ball rather than distributing, he also averages a lowly 9.06 kicking meters per game across his career. None of Watson’s attributes points towards him being a capable halves partner for Mitchell Pearce going forward.
While Ponga’s move to fullback will probably result in a bump in his personal statistics, I am not convinced that bump will be enough to cover for the deficiencies that Connor Watson has at five-eighth. Deficiencies which Ponga didn’t display in his three rounds at five-eighth.
Another factor that could come back to bite the Newcastle in the backside is a lack of position-specific conditioning for Ponga. It is no secret that fullbacks cover the most distance of any position in rugby league, by a street and then some.
With Ponga having told the Newcastle Herald that “I’ve put on a bit of weight” in order to cope with the increased physicality of playing in the front-line, he could struggle initially with the increased running load that comes with returning to fullback.
Which could mean he might not have the energy to have the immediate game-changing impact that coach Brown desires.
While I’m certain that Ponga will return to his best at fullback and display the form that saw him come 2nd in the Dally M in his first full season of NRL, to what detriment will the switch have on the rest of the team? Only time will tell.