Ponga ready to join $1m club
Kalyn Ponga has begun negotiations with Newcastle hierarchy on a proposed $6 million contract that will keep the Maroons whizkid in the NRL and away from the clutches of the mighty All Blacks.
The Courier-Mail can reveal Ponga's management has started preliminary talks with Knights hierarchy ahead of the Queensland Origin star's return to fullback against the Dragons in Newcastle on Sunday.
Ponga has had an indifferent start to the 2019 season in a new role at five-eighth, but his minor blip in form won't stop the 21-year-old becoming the next young gun to join the NRL's elite $1 million club.
The new deal will represent the richest contract in Newcastle's 31-year history. It would eclipse David Klemmer's $4.3m mega deal, signed last November, and see Ponga financially surge past the Knights' greatest playmakers - the famous Johns brothers, Matthew and NRL Immortal Andrew.
Ponga is currently contracted to Newcastle until the end of 2021, with an option in his favour for the following season. But the former Cowboys sensation is so content at his new club he sees a longer-term future at Newcastle and the Knights are amenable to an upgrade.
Newcastle bosses have not discussed figures at this stage but have indicated they would like to extend Ponga beyond 2022. The rookie's management is keen to broker an extension until at least the end of 2024, when Ponga turns 26.
Under the proposal, Ponga's salary this season, around $750,000, would not change. But a beefed-up five or six-year extension would see Ponga earn up to $1.2 million annually, a salary package that would make a poaching threat from New Zealand rugby seriously prohibitive.
There are suggestions Ponga is worth $1.5m on the open market, but the Knights would likely baulk at such a figure given the constraints of the NRL's $9.6m salary cap.
The Knights ace was last year linked with a shock move to play rugby for New Zealand, the birthplace of his father Andre, but the Ponga camp are not entertaining any notion of an All Blacks defection.
It is understood Ponga's management will formalise the upgrade this season, preferably before the completion of the Origin series in July.
Ponga told The Sunday Mail he was relishing life in Newcastle after the emotional anguish of the toughest call of his young career - telling Cowboys superstar Johnathan Thurston he would be leaving Townsville.
"I'm really happy at the Knights," said Ponga, who plays his 24th game for Newcastle on Sunday and just his 33rd NRL game overall.
"I didn't think I would establish myself at Newcastle as quickly as I have.
"It's been awesome. I've learnt a lot on and off the field. It's been a good move … the right move.
"To be honest, it would have been the easier option to stay (at the Cowboys), but I had faith in myself and my family backed me. I felt confident with what I was doing."
The Cowboys were carefully grooming Ponga to succeed Thurston. The mentoring plan was humming along when Thurston was left stunned by Ponga's Knights bombshell.
"It was definitely hard to walk away from the Cowboys," he said. "They had a bloke like 'Jonno' who was such a huge figure and I was doing some mentoring with him.
"We had a chat. I told him I was leaving.
"He respected what I said. He had his views. What I chose probably wasn't what 'JT' wanted to hear but I'd like to think he is happy for me now.
"Going to a different city with a struggling team (Newcastle was a tough call, but I was confident I could make it work."
While he played nine games for the Cowboys, Ponga's sizzling 2018 campaign with the Knights represented his first full season of NRL. Almost overnight, he became a State of Origin star, but Ponga is determined not to become a bighead. He is not seduced by success. He is adamant he will not be a victim of second-year syndrome.
"I've heard about that term," he says.
"I haven't watched anyone myself and thought they were great in their rookie year, but geez, they suck this year.
"I'm not worried about the negatives. I've always looked for positives in life so that's the way I will approach this year.
"My humility comes from my family. My dad has a lot of brothers and I've always had them to keep me in line. Any time dad saw things going to my head, he pulled my head in very quickly.
"I've still got a long way to go. I'm still keen, still working hard. I don't want to get to the end of my career thinking, 'Far out, I should have done this, I should have improved in this area'.
"I always want to get better. As long as I keep that mindset, I'll keep getting better."