After one of the greatest rookie seasons in the modern NRL era at fullback in 2018, you might think it is peculiar that Newcastle would want to shift Ponga out of position.
However, it could prove to be a masterstroke from coach Nathan Brown.
Having already started a few games for Newcastle at five-eighth at the back end of last season, Ponga is set to make a permanent shift to the halves in 2019.
Although there’s been nothing official from Ponga himself, teammate Connor Watson has all but confirmed the move. Having told The Sunday Telegraph that “the plan with me and Kalyn is I’ll try at one and he’ll go at six and just see how it works out”.
Although it seems odd to move Ponga to a new position off the back of coming second in the Dally M as a fullback, if you scratch under the surface, the move makes sense.
First and foremost, a move to six would provide Ponga with more energy, as he would have a lesser running load at five-eighth, and more ball in hand opportunities. As one of the Knights’ primary offensive sparks, this can only be positive for their attack. Also, having already contributed an impressive 11 try assists in 2018, this number would likely increase as his involvements per game do the same.
Moreover, Ponga’s shift would not only benefit himself, but it would also have a positive impact on other members of the all-important spine. As it would take some of the pressure off Mitchell Pearce to be the primary play-maker, and also allow Connor Watson to play his more natural game as a ball running threat out the back.
Although Watson could do a job for any NRL side at five-eighth, all his attributes and statistics point towards him being a quality fullback. Though Watson is a more than capable ball-player, he is far more dangerous as a ball runner. Displayed by the fact that he has more career tries (16) than try assists (10). He also averaged 106 running meters per game in season 2018, which was the highest of any NRL five-eighth for season 2018. Showing that he is more than capable with the ball in hand.
Watson also has a poor kicking game for a five-eighth, averaging a lowly 9.06 kicking meters per game across his career. Whereas his halves partner Pearce averaged a whopping 413.1 kicking meters per game, desperately displaying the need for some splitting of the kicking duties. This is another facet of the game in which Ponga could provide support for Pearce, as he averaged a far more acceptable 64.77 kicking meters per game, which was second only to Moses Mbye (a converted halfback) for most kicking meters amongst fullbacks in 2018.
A question that is often raised in regard to Ponga’s suitability to play in the front line is the increased defensive load. However, let’s not forget the 52 minutes he played as a lock forward in Origin II, contributing 28 tackles and 109 running meters, and not just surviving but thriving in the Origin cauldron.
Another aspect on Ponga’s side is the fact that he is only 20-years old and still has plenty of growing to do. Another few years in the gym will see him add some more muscle to an already imposing frame.
Ponga and the Knights will kick off their season at home on March 15th against the Sharks, who head into season 2019 on shaky ground following a tumultuous off-season.