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‘I’m not afraid': Ponga opens up on big 2019 switch

Kalyn Ponga has a laid back approach to life and footy.
Kalyn Ponga has a laid back approach to life and footy.

He's undoubtedly the coolest kid in the NRL.

Kalyn Ponga, 20, is exceptionally talented yet so laid back in his approach to life and footy.

In this wide-ranging interview with foxsports.com.au, the uber casual Knights star explains how he remains so relaxed in the face of any challenge - including his positional switch, his State of Origin debut, and why Knights fans should be excited for 2019.

 

What scares Kalyn Ponga?

The unflappable rugby league superstar has handled everything that has been thrown at him in his short time in the game, seemingly with ease.

His cool, calm and collected manner unnerves his rivals and leaves experts confounded about how a 20-year-old kid can be so nonchalant about, well, pretty much everything.

However, there's a chink in Ponga's armour. Of all things, he admits to getting scared while playing video games.

Speaking at the launch of the new Battle Royale mode in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, Ponga opens up on his gaming obsession.

"I grew up playing Call of Duty, it was my favourite game," Ponga tells foxsports.com.au.

"It's heaps of fun, but it was a bit scary at first. You get scared because you don't know where anyone is going to be and it freaks you out a bit.

"Once you get the hang of it and get more strategic and you can play with your mates, which makes it interesting."

It's hard to pick Ponga as a gamer. The Knights' star seems more of an outdoors kind of guy. Growing up in New Zealand and then Queensland, Ponga excelled at rugby league, rugby union, AFL and golf, which makes one wonder where he found the time to play video games.

He says gaming helps him unwind and decompress away from the rigours of being a professional sportsmen.

"It's a perfect way to wind down after the intensity of footy and especially with Battle Royale you have to think a bit more," he says.

"When I don't want to think about anything else, I'll just play games by myself or with my mates and it is a good release."

 

Kalyn Ponga and Benji Marshall play Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.
Kalyn Ponga and Benji Marshall play Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

None of the nonsense

It is impossible not to like Ponga. He is a superstar devoid of any insincerity.

He doesn't take things too seriously. He is respectful of his rivals. He enjoys his job and he likes to have fun.

Earlier this year, Ponga was asked what was the difference between Origin and club footy after his debut for Queensland.

Astonishingly, his reply was: "Not much".

This was despite playing the front line for the first time, defending as a forward and still bringing energy to the Maroons.

His response could have been perceived as arrogance, but it was an honest answer about how much he thrives on playing footy.

While most people would expend a lot of energy worrying about the step up from club footy to Origin, Ponga just took it in his stride. To him, it was just another game of rugby league.

 

 

Kalyn Ponga makes a break on debut for Queensland in Origin II.
Kalyn Ponga makes a break on debut for Queensland in Origin II.

"I don't know why people always ask that," Ponga says.

"I'm pretty chilled and pretty relaxed. That's just the way I like to go about things on the field.

"Whether it is a mistake by myself or a teammate it doesn't really matter because we will learn from it.

"Each game is a learning curve. Obviously I have my points where I'm disappointed, but if I see it as a learning curve I think it is a good way to approach it."

Ponga credits his parents, Adine and Andre for his relaxed outlook.

From a young age he was given the tools to cope with obstacles that he faced, both on and off the field.

"I guess my mum and dad have instilled in me some mental toughness," Ponga admits.

"But now I don't really go to anyone to keep me calm or anything like that. I just do what I do and be me and hope that it works."

 

Ponga will play five-eighth in 2019.
Ponga will play five-eighth in 2019.

Switching it up for the Knights

Another obstacle Ponga will face in 2019 is the extra workload in defence as he moves from fullback to five-eighth for the Knights.

Opposition teams will be running traffic at him in the hope of blunting his brilliance in attack.

However, like everything in his life, Ponga welcomes the challenge and remains undaunted.

"I'm not worried about the extra defence," Ponga says.

"I think Origin gave me a bit of confidence. Before that I probably made four tackles a year and I made 30 in that game.

"I feel like I will be tested, obviously, but I'm not going to shy away from it and I'm not afraid of it, so it doesn't worry me too much."

Nor is he worried about trying to bulk up his frame to cope with the increased demands.

"I think I have bulked up a bit naturally because I'm still growing, so I'm going to get a little bit bigger anyway," Ponga says.

"I need to work on my strength, but I don't want to get too big that I lose my speed because that is pretty important for my game."

Hopefully off-season ankle surgery won't affect his speed either.

Time spent in the rehab group has been difficult for someone with his energy, but he can see the light at the end of the tunnel and has progressed into solid training.

 

Ponga and his mother Adine at the 2018 Dally M Awards.
Ponga and his mother Adine at the 2018 Dally M Awards.

 

Big expectations

The signings of the likes of Test prop David Klemmer and rising star Jesse Ramien has sparked renewed hope of finals football for the Knights next season.

However, with expectation comes pressure to perform in 2019.

Mark Geyer suggested anything less than top four would be a failure for the Knights, but Ponga isn't feeling the heat.

"Not really to be honest, I haven't even thought about it," Ponga says.

"The boys are just focusing on working hard and if we don't, then no one is going to achieve anything.

"It is great to have good players, but if they are not working hard, it won't matter how good our roster is."

Another 'wait and see' proposition is his positional switch, with housemate and good friend Connor Watson to move to the No.1 jersey in 2019, with Ponga trialling next to Mitchell Pearce in the halves.

 

Mitchell Pearce will form a new combination with Ponga.
Mitchell Pearce will form a new combination with Ponga.

"Connor and I live together, so we have done a lot of talking about the swap," Ponga says.

"We have just been focused on our roles for the team, but it's not like if he does something bad then I tell him I would have done this.

"He plays the way he plays and I play the way I play and we both agree that just because we are going to play in different positions it doesn't matter, we just need time together."

While Ponga has been in rehab his teammates have been slogging it out in a gruelling off-season campaign as expectations on the team rise.

Knights' fans will be hoping all the hard work leads to results next season.

The Novocastrians crave success after three wooden spoons in the last four years.

The ever-confident Ponga is bullish about his side's chances in 2019.

"It's exciting that we have signed some great players, so top four is obviously a goal, but I don't know why anyone would strive for anything less," he says.

"We will see how we go, but we are excited."

As are all rugby league fans to see Ponga back in action.

- Interview by Joe McDonough

Topics:  kalyn ponga knights nrl sportfeature

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