As we head into the final month of summer and the first trial matches just around the corner, preparations for the NRL season of 2022 are starting to pick up steam for all 16 clubs across the competition.
For Newcastle the focus will be around building on their consecutive 7th place finishes and looking to how to can take that next step and work their way into the top four.
Although excitement is building for the season ahead, a cloud looms over Newcastle, a cloud that should be their shining light, that being the future of their prized possession and marque player Kalyn Ponga.Embed from Getty Images
Ponga’s much publicised and talked about Knights’ contract that has get out clauses or player options for seasons 2023 and 2024 has been the major talking point over the off-season for the Knights.
With the impending entry to the competition for the NRL’s newest club the Dolphins coming in 2023, all clubs have been put on notice to secure their best talent before the cashed-up Queensland side looking to build a roster that can compete from day 1, under the guidance of super-coach and former Knights mentor Wayne Bennett.
While the Dolphins have signed a good group of experienced forwards, they’re still yet to land that marque signing after missing out on big targets such as Cameron Munster, Brandon Smith, Api Koroisau, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and many more.
This has left the Dolphins and Bennett desperate to land a player fitting of being the face of the new franchise, and they have the money to put forward a compelling offer.Embed from Getty Images
When looking for the perfect profile of a player to fit the billing for the Dolphins first marquee player, it doesn’t take genius to know that Kalyn Ponga ticks every box.
Ponga is already one the most marketable players in the NRL, his exciting style of play from his electric foot work, brilliant passing game and long list of highlights has landed him on just about every NRL marketing campaign and of course elevated him to being the face of the Newcastle Knights.
The fact Ponga is also a Queenslander and a clean skin off the field, makes him the perfect marquee player for the Dolphins, a player who will undoubtedly boost memberships, merchandise, and the quality of the team with his signing.
The Dolphins have the space in the cap to make Ponga the highest paid player in the game, plus the vast amounts of third-party sponsorships available in the Brisbane market, a move to south east Queensland would deliver KP the richest deal ever secured by a NRL player before.
Newcastle have already made Ponga one of the highest paid players in the NRL. According to Phil Gardiner (Knights CEO), he is in the “top two” highest earners in the game.
They’ve also made him captain of the club. So, the question must be asked, what else can the Knights do to keep their man?Embed from Getty Images
The Knights took a leap of faith in Ponga when they offered him a huge 4-year deal to join the club from the Cowboys, after just a few NRL games, a contract that stirred up lots on controversy and upset the whole state of Queensland.
Ponga has undoubtedly lifted the standard of play and profile of the Knights, he’s been looked after better than most and rewarded with a rich upgrade only two years ago, so you can forgive the Knights’ fans for questioning why their captain is entertaining leaving the club?
Ponga has avoided answering questions about the Dolphins, generally replying with “My only focus is winning a premiership with Knights”, whilst this is exactly what you’d want to hear from your marquee player, it’s felt less than convincing, and he has admitted to speaking to Bennett.
The structure of Ponga’s deal and these player options mean that the Origin Star has until around June or July this year to inform the club whether he intends to take up his option to stay at Newcastle for 2023.
If Ponga were to decide to leave the club and join Bennett and the Dolphins, this would leave the Knights scrambling to replace their best player seven or eight months after the window opened to sign players for 2023.
This would leave the club in the same position they find themselves in now, as they try to replace former halfback Mitchell Pearce, who requested a release to join the Catalans in France, almost four months on from his release, no replacement has been found and with Round 1 just six-weeks away, time is running out.Embed from Getty Images
The loss and at this stage failed mission to replace Pearce, shows that it makes it extremely difficult to replace such key-players unless adequate preparation has been done prior to the November 1 date, to when players can negotiate with rival clubs.
Questions need to be asked at the club how they’ve gotten themselves into this situation where Pearce and Ponga could leave the club and leave them in such a precarious position.
The club’s decision to give Pearce a 1-year extension raised questions from the start, they needed to either make the call to move on from him and target a new playmaker or give him and themselves more security with a 2-year deal. The agreement to give Ponga these player options has also left them unsecured, and their prized possession there for the taking.
People will argue the club might have had no choice but to agree to the terms Ponga requested, but the question must be asked; if you’re earning “top two” money, do you really need, get out clauses in your deal?
Surely the club deserves some security for their investment which is their most important both on and off the field?
When comparing Ponga to similar players on similar money, like James Tedesco or Tom Trbojevic, they don’t have get out clauses in their deals, and when comparing their on-field performances it’s hard to argue that Tedesco and Trbojevic are performing to levels well above what Ponga has produced for the Knights.
As a Knights’ fan it would be nice to see Ponga walk into the club’s head office and inform them that he will be taking up the option to be the Knights’ highest paid player for 2023 (and 2024 if that’s not asking too much).
It would be even better to see Ponga lead the Knights out in Round 1 against the Roosters, and deliver his best season, one fitting of both his ability and pay packet.Embed from Getty Images
The Knights’ attack was awful in 2021, but the inclusion of club legend Andrew Johns as an assistant coach, who has been tasked with overhauling the team’s attack, has given fans hope we will see better play and more points this year.
The key to Johns’ master plan is to have Ponga get his hands on the ball more often, and in better situations, this should hopefully allow for him to reach the heights set by Tedesco and Trbojevic, and help the team take the next step into a top four finish.